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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Racism In The South

I have travelled to the South every year for over ten years, and for the last three have lived in a small town in the Deep South.  I have always been interested in this region of the country, and perhaps because I have travelled to over 50 developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the South has always seemed like a foreign country.  Mississippi has always been one of the very poorest states in the Union with predictably poor social indicators – low rates of education, and high rates of unemployment, mortality and morbidity.  It has the highest black population in the country at nearly 40 percent, most of whom live in de facto segregated areas.  While there is some racial interchange at public and civic facilities, blacks and whites lead largely separate lives. 

Because of poverty, poor education, and a lack of economic and social opportunities, most blacks have lived in the South for generations.  After the Civil War there was the great migration to Northern cities, but many blacks stayed in the South and with a fertility rate significantly higher than whites, their population grew to the significantly high proportion it is now.

While faring much better than blacks, whites in Mississippi earn only a median income of $45,000 compared to Maryland’s $80,000 (data from Mississippi and Maryland governments), and their mobility, like that for blacks, has been limited by economic constraints.  However, the South has also been culturally conservative, and more well-to-do white families have traditionally remained in the communities where they were born; and many have lived in the same house for generations.

Mississippi and Alabama are two of the most politically conservative states in the country with a deep white mistrust of the federal government; and memories of the Civil War are not just vague, distant memories, but very much vivid and lasting ones. Sherman’s March to the Sea and his marauding sweep through South Carolina are not simply the academic events read about in Civil War history, but bloody, punitive, and savage ones. 

Reconstruction was a particularly painful time for the South when the vengeful Radical Republican Congress imposed harsh penalties on the Confederacy.  Plantation owners were forced off their lands, Carpetbaggers moved in and profiteered, former slaves were elevated to positions of political power, and whites who were deprived of any electoral representation watched while uneducated field hands occupied state legislatures.

The hundred years between the end of the War and the Civil Rights Act of 1965 was a period of restoration when the South rebuilt its economy, social structure, and labor market in the image of the Antebellum period.  Tenant farmers were very little different from slaves; the white aristocracy regained its lands and its supremacy, and to all intents and purposes, the South had indeed risen again.

After 1965 when the federal government aggressively intervened to force integration in the South, old resentments against the North were rekindled, and hatred of the federal government and their abrogation of states’ rights burned as fiercely as it ever had.

In reality, the Civil War never really ended until 1965, and although the South has changed significantly since then, old resentments still exist.  That is, an old, traditional white South, now much poorer, with few privileges, and geographically immobile by choice or economics still has many of the same attitudes, perspectives, and political emotions as it always has.  Racism is one of them.

It is not surprising that this marginalized white population, surrounded by an ever-increasing number of largely poor and uneducated blacks who are now taking over municipal governments, is racist – perhaps even more so than ever before.  Watching this rise to power of a black population which had always been segregated and invisible is no different than during the Reconstruction era when disenfranchised whites watched former slaves cavort in the halls of the State House.

Chuck Thompson, writing in the New Republic (Is Racism Worse in the South, 3.6.13) reports that for years researchers have tried to devise objective indicators and methodologies to track racism, but all have been flawed. 

The famous ‘Hate Map’ drawn by the Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, reveals the kind of shitkicker-country distribution you’d expect to find. In a contiguous belt of states taking in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, no state has fewer than 25 active hate groups. Tennessee has 39. Florida has 55. Georgia, an astonishing 65.

But, like virtually every measure of racism, a cursory glance at the figures is misleading. We see in them what we expect to see. “With few exceptions, the Hate Map generally tracks population, not Southern culture,” says Mark Potok, senior fellow at the SPLC and one of the country’s foremost authorities on racial extremism. “Zones where there is a historic cultural conflict like Southern California always have high counts.” California has 84 of them.

So, one is left with anecdotal evidence:

There are scholars who will talk to you for hours about the Southern centrality to racism. At Texas A&M University, Pulitzer Prize nominee, prolific author and sociology professor Joe Feagin told me a couple years ago that, “structural racism is much stronger in the South.”

“The South still has that underlying structure of slavery and Jim Crow,” Feagin told me. “The South is where it’s rooted most deeply and still is because it’s got half the black population of the country.”

More importantly Thompson observes that race is perceived differently in the South than the North, and that the roots of racism are found in the soil of Civil War history, but have taken some unexpected twists:

There’s a preoccupation with skin color in the South that exists nowhere else. On radio call-in shows, in impromptu conversations, bars, churches, parks, barbershops, coffee counters, in discussions that have absolutely nothing to do with race, Southerners of all ethnicities introduce the topic as casually and as void of nuance as they might when bringing up the weather.

Atlanta-based sports journalist Spencer Hall once explained it to me this way: “Race is a topic of discussion in the South for the same reason unexploded ordnance is a topic of discussion in France and Belgium.”

Some racist sentiments are not so subtle:

South Carolina, home to the only black Republican U.S. senator, still proudly flies the Confederate flag in front of its capitol in Columbia. Tour the grounds of the gorgeous classical revival-style State House and you’ll find a shrine to slaveholders, racial oppressors, demagogues, and grits-munching political obstinacy.

Walking counter-clockwise from the north side of the domed capitol facing Gervais Street, you encounter a large bronze statue of Ben Tillman, South Carolina governor from 1890 to 1894 and U.S. senator from 1895 to 1918. “Pitchfork Ben” was also one of the most vehement white supremacists this country has ever produced, a man who publicly advocated lynching all black people uppity enough to vote. Tillman once said of African Americans, “We have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it.”

I have never wanted to concede that the virulent hatred for President Obama that I have heard repeated again and again had anything to do with race. After all, there was enough non-racial Tea Party right wing conservatism down here to enflame even the most race-neutral Republican.  However, as people began to confide in me, I heard the following statement again and again: “We have just got to get that N----- out of the White House”.  What I will never know, of course, is whether that racial epithet, abhorred in the North, has a less purely racially hateful meaning behind it than in the North.  Black people were called N------for centuries and are referred to behind closed doors all the time now.  Are people just speaking 19th Century English like Faulkner and Mark Twain, and using a common referent? 

Understanding racism is not to condone it; but we are all a product of our past, propelled by powerful currents of history.  We react according to internalized forces we ourselves do not understand.  I was criticized by friends before taking my first trip to the Deep South.  I was a traitor, they said, consorting with the enemy, sanctioning racism, giving support to Southern racial hatred.  When I told stories of the beautifully-restored,elegant, antebellum houses in which I stayed, the opprobrium got worse.  I was not only condoning slavery but by so publically endorsing the most hated icon of the old South – the plantation – I was scurrilous.  No matter how I protested and explained that one must understand the South and Southern history to understand America, I was rebuffed.  My Northern liberal friends were as deeply prejudiced and antipathetic to the South as the South was to the North.

Washington, DC is as racially segregated as any place in the South.  Rock Creek Park and the Anacostia River divides white and black Washington as distinctly as South African apartheid.  The white communities west of the park are so racially homogeneous, and the all-black neighborhoods are so far away that racial sentiments are kept far from every day life and more academic considerations can prevail. However, we racially profile, segment, and categorize no differently from Mississippi.  If we see a young black man on our streets late at night, we call the police – a lot quicker than if he were white.  Are we racists? Or realists?

We in the North are living the legacy of the South, slavery, and the Civil War.  Every time I inadvertently cross the black-white line in DC and see the totally black, segregated, marginalized, and isolated black parts of town, I know that the Civil War is still not over.  We may keep our lips from pronouncing the N Word, but a type of racism – perhaps more benign that than in the South – is still within us.

The South’s racism and racist history will only be expunged once there is economic and then social parity between blacks and whites.  Until that time, while immediate and up-close racial differences persist; and while the the political transformation of the South from white to black continues, there will be racism.

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