Beyond racism: lessons from the South on racial discrimination and prejudice

Seven lessons from the deep South on racism, racial discrimination, and prejudice.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Lessons on racism, racial prejudice and discrimination have been forged in the deep South in places like Philadelphia, Miss. The high school band – practicing here on game day – is an 80-member, multiracial team in a school district just released from court oversight for integration. Not a single white student in the 2009-10 school year decided to transfer out of the majority-black district.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
This article is part of the cover-story package for the Sept. 20, 2010 issue of The Christian Science Monitor weekly magazine.

How does a black man win the highest political office in this majority-white town, infamous for one of the vilest acts of racial violence in modern American history?

James Young knows precisely. The chatty, barrel-chested Pentecostal pastor and former town ambulance worker became the city's first black mayor last year, mainly by promising he wouldn't fix anybody's traffic tickets. But despite his well-known face and pro-business outlook, Mr. Young admits he still bears the burden of his race in the eyes of many townspeople.

So how did he overcome the racial odds? "My philosophy is that I refuse to stop the truck and get out to fight you," he says. "I'm going to keep moving forward."

IN PICTURES: Race in America

Young's slim, 47-vote victory in this town of 8,000 is hardly proof that racial prejudice is dead in the South, never mind here, where a gang of white supremacists led by a preacher killed three civil rights workers in 1964, inspiring the iconic movie "Mississippi Burning." But as the rest of America – under its first black president, Barack Obama – still finds itself clashing regularly over the use of the N-word or hurling accusations of racism in politics and the workplace, Philadelphia is seen as an example of racial redemption. It's the outcome of what historian Joseph Crespino at Emory University in Atlanta calls "a unique laboratory of racial interaction that is specific to the South."

By virtue of paradox and complexity, the South is an evasive teacher, often too genteel and judicious to ballyhoo its advances. But the old Confederacy's wrenching emergence from separate water fountains to an international melting pot reveals a region comfortable with its contradictions and even its past, a place where common interests trump overt prejudice, and where many people see race as an undeniable fact of life not to be subverted, but appreciated.

"I think the one thing the South could teach the country about race is that it's a deeper problem than anybody realizes; it touches more nerves than anyone wants to acknowledge, but at the same time that racism and the racist heritage of America can be overcome," says Massachusetts-born historian Jason Sokol, author of "There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975."

"Every day, in every way, you can see that the South can teach the country about what it's been able to do in our very lifetime," adds Pat Caddell, a Democratic pollster who was part of President Jimmy Carter's inner circle.

Lesson 1: Recognize how far we've come

In the 1960s, Birmingham, Ala., gave America images of white police siccing German shepherds on black youths, shocking photos that galvanized the nation. The clashes were followed by federal laws guaranteeing civil rights and voting rights, and the eventual flight of many whites out of Birmingham and into the suburbs.

Today, many of the same children who faced water cannons grew up to take over key city positions, including at various times the mayor's office.

The black middle class mingles easily with whites at restaurants in the upscale Five Points area, and transitional neighborhoods like Roebuck are gradually integrating. There is a sense of racial peace that comes, local blacks say, from a recognition of the past and a view toward a mutual, but not necessarily integrated, future.

Hard, brutal ground was covered for Birmingham to emerge as a destination on a Southern civil rights tourist trail. Now, in Kelly Park, locals like Barbara Anderson, whose parents rallied there to protest Martin Luther King's imprisonment, can walk through a cast-iron sculpture of attack dogs gnashing in perpetuity at passersby.

To Ms. Anderson, the dog sculpture is visceral and deeply symbolic of the South's transformation: "Things have gotten a lot better [between the races]. The first time I walked through it, I was afraid. But I got used to it."

Juan Perkins, one of the Birmingham "foot soldiers" who faced the water cannons in the 1960s, remembers as a boy seeing a black man hanging from a tree and, as a teenager, watching helplessly as white joy riders raped his childhood sweetheart in the back seat of a car. Today, Mr. Perkins says he sees a Southern society that has simply laid down its arms and gotten past very basic racial injustice.

"What it comes down to in the South is we're not mad at each other anymore," he says. "I think a lot of people got the civil rights movement wrong. Black people didn't necessarily want to be with whites; they just wanted to be able to go where whites went."

Yes, race still chafes at Southern society. It's still difficult for many blacks to resolve the slave heritage that turned into Jim Crow, and there are lingering concerns that the social and economic advancements blacks have achieved could still be lost. Yet the old scars, many blacks say, simply don't hurt anymore. Experts attribute the subsiding anger to a common culture and destiny that Southern whites and blacks have shared, for better and for worse, across many generations of connections.

"There's a common culture in the South that's really there, and in the North they don't have it nearly as much," says Thomas Pettigrew, a Southern-born sociologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Perkins sees it another way: Whites and blacks in the South are "enemies who live in harmony."

Lesson 2: Talk about race like a Southerner

Perkins's quote is a blunt assessment from a region known better for courtesy, restraint, and propriety in public conversation. Yet race is never an abstract in the South. "It's in every room," says Susan Glisson, director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.

In the United States, few things are as uncomfortable as talking about race in mixed-race company. Witness this summer, full of racial backbiting: The release of a Journolist online exchange where a liberal journalist mused about marginalizing conservative figures by labeling them racists. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the "tea party" movement trading barbs, with the NAACP even creating to ferret out evidence of racism. Public figures like actor Mel Gibson and Dr. Laura Schlessinger roiling racial debate by using the word "nigger." Conservative talk show host Glenn Beck calling Mr. Obama a "racist," and a video clip of a new Black Panther Party leader proclaiming, "You want freedom? You're gonna have to kill some crackers."

The most explosive incident of the summer involved Shirley Sherrod, a black US Department of Agriculture official who was forced to resign for an apparently racist viewpoint given at an NAACP awards dinner. The uproar placed in stark relief the conversational divide between North and South.

Ms. Sherrod's story was a typical Southern redemption tale, infused with Baptist proverb. Born in rural Georgia and affected deeply when authorities failed to indict anyone for the murder of her father, Sherrod admitted questioning the integrity of a "white farmer" in the 1980s – and withholding the "full force" of her farm office to help him.

"I thought [her] speech was very Southern," says Mr. Pettigrew, the sociologist. "She was telling about her rebirth, her rethinking about race, and what she had in common with that white fellow."

Contrast the quick national judgment of Sherrod (who was eventually offered reinstatement, but declined) with a recent experience David Hooker, a black community-builder, had visiting Oxford, Miss., another iconic civil rights town steeped in Confederate history. Mr. Hooker, who lives in Atlanta and teaches at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., stepped into the Ajax bar to order some food. A white Mississippian sitting at the bar said to no one in particular, but within Hooker's earshot, "I remember when they didn't let niggers in here."

Recounting the episode, Hooker says he replied, "That was crazy, wasn't it? I remember that, too."

Hooker adds: "He kind of looked at me, like, 'What do you mean? You're not going to be offended?' "

The two ended up having a 45-minute chat that spanned the election of Obama, the Ole Miss football team, and hopes for their kids. "He was asking to have a conversation about race – he just didn't quite know how," says Hooker. "The reason I could hear that as an invitation is because I constantly remind myself that hurt people hurt people – they're exposing you to a place of their own pain."

To be sure, public atonements like the Senate's 2005 apology for failing to pass antilynching laws, and even the Obama "beer summit" in 2009 between Harvard University historian Henry Louis Gates and the white Cambridge, Mass., police sergeant who arrested Mr. Gates at his own home, can be effective, "but they can't be surrogates for local conversation" like those that often happen among black and white Southerners, says Ms. Glisson.

"When we try to have national conversations about race we tend to throw everything into the mix from the Middle Passage to Jim Crow to Don Imus," she says. "There are so many complexities and nuances that you lose any real focus that can get you somewhere."

Still, the troubled race conversation – even though fueled these days by partisans on both sides, black and white, trying to score political points for a key midterm election – may not ultimately be a sign of a devolution of race relations, but examples of a country stumbling toward understanding.

"It's like muscle memory, where it takes time to practice and train your muscles to do the work they have to do," Glisson says. "We have to do the same thing with racial dialogue. When we first start it, we might offend somebody or get offended, but we can't leave the table. And so, in that way, I see a sign of maturity in these conversations in the South and even in some of these national conversations."

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.

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.

After having made his money in Atlanta and New York, Willie Griffin followed his wife to Selma, Ala., where the two bought a downtown warehouse to convert into a storefront and loft condos.

"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.

•Additional research was contributed by Leigh Montgomery and Geoff Johnson, staff.

IN PICTURES: Race in America

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