Beyond racism: lessons from the South on racial discrimination and prejudice
Seven lessons from the deep South on racism, racial discrimination, and prejudice.
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The South still gets short shrift from many Americans on racial advancement. Exhibit A is the vast economic inequality all too evident in the mostly black Alabama Black Belt and the Mississippi Delta, where conditions sometimes border on third-world.Skip to next paragraph
Yet from cafes in small Georgia railroad towns to the freshly minted corporate spires of Charlotte, N.C., social interaction between whites and blacks is more frequent and often friendlier than in much of the North, sometimes by virtue of a shared Southern culture as well as social proximity that dates to before the civil rights movement.
The lesson? "In all cases, contact increases tolerance," says Pettigrew.
Today, the four most integrated cities in the country are south of the Mason-Dixon line. FBI statistics show that Southern states regularly report fewer hate crimes than do states like California and New Jersey, though critics blame reporting gaps for those disparities. (Mississippi, for one, reported no hate crimes to the FBI in 2007 and four in 2008, the same year Vermont reported 20.)
In that same vein, most racially tinged debates this summer have been fueled by non-Southerners, their racialized political jabs further abetted by a national media – largely based in the North (save CNN in Atlanta) – that critics say condescend to blacks by portraying them as helpless.
"The worst form of insidious racism in America is the institutionalized elite view where they treat African-Americans, including the president, with a patronizing attitude and condescension; where the press so blatantly expresses that the black guy can't do it on his own, we have to protect him," says Mr. Caddell, the former Carter confidant.
Pettigrew says that the at times juvenile "he said, she said" tenor of the race debate in America can be attributed to a simple fact: Much of the rest of America has missed out on both forced and voluntary race reconciliation in the South. That process, Pettigrew says, has been driven by the growing class equality in the region, which has raised what he calls "friendship potential" in the public sphere.
"Most Northern whites do not know blacks, so when you don't know a group and you're segregated like, say, Detroit, you can project all kinds of things onto the other group, how dangerous they are, how crime-ridden," says Pettigrew. "I remember going to a Harvard grad school seminar and hearing scholars and intellectuals talking about black people in a way that it was obvious they didn't actually know any black people. It wasn't particularly prejudiced, just ignorant. That's not likely to happen in the South."
Lesson 4: Blacks love Southern opportunity
Nearly a century after the Great Migration north began – as 6 million members of the slave diaspora escaped Jim Crow – the scales tipped back sometime in the 2000s. Once again, the majority of all American blacks live in the South – a testament to civil rights advancements and the "Southern miracle" economy.
To come south, mostly educated blacks left the stronger welfare safety nets of Northern state and city economies to compete in "right to work" states like North Carolina and Georgia, where economic opportunity seemed golden compared with the slowly rusting industrial cities of the North. But while Democrats have depended on expanding government programs to lure the black voting bloc, the march southward by educated blacks over the past few decades describes changing aspirations.
"What's changed in the South is that people increasingly tolerate the individual," says Mr. Griffin, explaining his decision to return and invest in the town where riot police once turned back black civil rights marchers after they crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge on their way to Montgomery. "If there's prejudice today, it's more of a class thing than a racial thing."
While blacks, as a bloc, still lag behind whites on earnings and support Democrats, the South's vibrant economy has boosted educated blacks into the core of Southern businesses where they've become firmly entrenched in middle and upper management in corporations like Atlanta's Coca-Cola Co. and the banks of Charlotte and Durham, N.C., as well as in the South's booming entertainment and sports businesses. A Monitor analysis of US Census data shows that black income as a percentage of white income has been higher in the South than the national average during the past decade.
Sociologist Karyn Lacy found recently that black middle-class families specifically seek out areas to live where "black identity is nurtured."
"In Detroit and Cleveland, there hasn't been an economic boost since the civil rights movement as [in] Atlanta and Dallas," says Bill Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "That means the old segregation patterns have become ingrained [in Northern cities] and those patterns haven't had a chance to diminish because new people haven't been moving in."
"The return of many blacks, both old and young, to the South has reflected opportunities that certainly were never there in earlier generations," adds Southern historian Bill Ferris at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
Lesson 5: Don't stereotype whites
Meet Marshall Blanton, the prototypical white Southerner. Perambulating the streets of Selma, Ala., in a pair of overalls, he says he had five forefathers who fought for the Confederacy. His own daddy, he says, "taught me to be prejudiced."
From the Ku Klux Klan to church bombings to the flame-carrier for an evangelical movement that helped transform American politics and shape the modern culture wars, the drawling rural white man from the Deep South embodies a unique American antagonist, easily blamed and ridiculed.
Yet Mr. Blanton, like many native whites across the region, is actually a nuanced character whose life represents a potent parable of the modern South: a process in which whites, especially poorer whites, have had to confront their deepest fears in resolving their views of black neighbors.
"The Vietnam War changed it for me," explains Blanton. "When I came back I told my wife, 'We're not raising our son [to be prejudiced].' "
"People think the only [ones] negatively impacted by Jim Crow's official and unofficial policies were African-Americans in the South," says Hooker. "But [prejudice] was taught by violence and coercion – deeply wounding ways of enforcing an unnatural behavior. Over time, that's as painful for the people who have had to maintain the system as it is for the people who were intentionally marginalized.
"For a lot of poorer whites, the pain of seeing blacks doing well or doing better was really difficult, and a lot of them have had to wonder, 'Did I do this right? Did I align myself correctly all these years by aligning myself against the progress of poor people because they happened to be black or brown?' "
Blanton, who clerks in a pharmacy, talks about "agitating" blacks on the city council holding Selma's economy back, but he also sees a white city council president who proclaims pride in his Confederate heritage as another "extremist" front.
He says he's also voted for lots of black candidates both locally and statewide, especially those who aren't "hellbent on payback."
"I think as long as we have agitators on both sides – black and white – we're not going to get anywhere," Blanton says. "I think that's why there's a lot of people like me out there, whites who look beyond race and vote for people who are going to be the most effective and who realize that what's good for the city is good for everyone."
Lesson 6: Segregation by any other name...
Despite its "hypersegregated" urban areas, the North has been able to proclaim itself as the progressive answer to the South's rigid mores.
The main reason? The view that segregation in the North happened naturally, or by choice, while Southern integration was institutionalized and violently enforced by whites.
But assumed differences in how segregation happened in the North versus the South are being challenged today, as historians show that so-called "Southern exceptionalism" – the idea of the South as the North's evil twin – may largely be a canard.
"The concept of Southern exceptionalism has obscured a lot of American history and a lot of Southern history, and it's time to put that to rest and understand how deeply interrelated America and the South is, and how much the two have always resembled each other," says Larry Griffin, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and author of "The South as an American Problem." "For decades and decades, the South's legacy has been the basic trope that permitted white Americans [to excuse] themselves from all racial guilt and project it to the American South."
A group of historians – including Mr. Sokol and the University of Michigan's Matt Lassiter – are revisiting how the North and South diverged after the Civil War. One of Mr. Lassiter's findings is that Northern segregation happened largely by the same kind of government decrees that enshrined segregation in the South.
"The North has been a freer place, in some ways a better place [for blacks], but on the level of spatial segregation, structural inequalities, and poverty, [the North] is no better than the South and is, in many cases, worse," says Sokol.
Surging tea party-fueled conservatives are often described by the press in terms of the lack of diversity in their ranks, an image many critics find parallels the Nixon and Reagan "Southern Strategy" of playing on white Southerners' racial fears, often in coded language.
States' rights and small government – pillars of the tea party movement – are also strongly identified with the South, causing New York Daily News columnist Stanley Crouch to claim that the patriotic "Restoring Honor" rally in Washington on Aug. 28 made "the red glow in Southern white necks."
To be sure, Northern whites vote more often for blacks than do Southern whites. And whites in many parts of the South voted in fewer numbers for Obama than they did for John Kerry in 2004.
Yet even those who believe that strong opposition to Obama and his progressive policies is, in part, based on race (or proxy issues such as whether Obama is a Muslim or was even born in the US) contend that the national racial divide, including segregation in the North, is as much to blame as the notion of Southern-born prejudice.
"Opposition to Obama in the North has just as much of a racial component as opposition to him in the South," says Sokol. "There's a duality [in defining racial progress]. It depends on which level of society you look at and which one you believe is the truest measure of racial progress or enlightenment."
Lesson 7: Keep moving forward
Mayor James Young's election in Philadelphia is a testament to a place where white boys at Williams Brothers Store help black ladies pack their trunks, where black girls aspire to become cheerleading champions, and where a federal judge this summer saw enough "good faith" in the town that he lifted a 41-year-old integration court order after noting that not a single white student in the 2009-10 school year decided to transfer out of the majority-black school district.
When, in 2005, a Philadelphia jury finally tried Edgar Ray Killen, the architect of the Mississippi Burning murders, the national press was astounded to find a general openness about the past among residents so brutally portrayed in a movie that became a de facto indictment of the South in general and Philadelphia in particular.
A local idea proposed by members of the mostly white chamber of commerce include a "Center of Redemption" where tourists can come to learn about how Philadelphia reconciled its violent past. (Today the Philadelphia Historical Museum makes no mention of the murders.)
At the Firehouse Bar-B-Que, Young sits among drawling waitresses and men wearing Georgia Boot work shoes. David Williams, a white voter, approaches to share a few laughs with Young. Later, he says, "The mayor is a great guy and he's working hard to make us better. The fact is, I didn't vote for him, but I will next time."
Young's ideal of race relations falls far short of a "colorblind society," but his goal is to tear down the "ignorance and fear that keeps us apart."
"We can't get a thing done by bullying each other," he says. "So I'm all about going back to what we truly are as a nation, the basic American ideals of liberty and justice for all. I can't do a thing about my skin color, and people will still judge me, but it's up to me to walk past that and do what's right. All I can do is focus on my mission, which is about people, integrity, and service. And my election shows that people respond to that."
His pragmatism with how to deal with leery white voters could be seen as an apologia for lingering racism. And Young also says he knows his fellow Mississippians are watching his leadership with a vigilance perhaps not given to a white mayor.
Indeed, as his well-wishers go up to pay at the counter, the mayor of Philadelphia sits alone at a table in the middle of the busy restaurant, looking, for a brief moment, like a man with a burden he's content to carry.