This may be the best thing that happened to me on this Open Salon experiment so far: Edgar Alverson wrote a note about my last post (“Racism is the New Black”), and we continued to communicate to each other via direct messages.
Edgar wrote a very eloquent letter to me, pointing out that I had propagated another kind of prejudice, that is, a very prejudiced view of the South as a red-necked, backwards corner of the US that is years behind the rest of us enlightened humans in terms of racial relations. He’s right: I had used that old chestnut of liberal bigotry without even thinking about it. I was flippant, and he called me on it!
Edgar’s letter is so good, I asked if I could publish it as a post of its own. He agreed, so without further ado…
“I think I still take it a bit too personally when people attack the modern south for being racist (not that the attacks don't ring true in some ways). Down here, just like everywhere else in the country, we're taught in public schools from a young age about the terrible stain of slavery, racism and Jim Crow. We learn these lessons in integrated classrooms where some kids' parents still harbor overtly racist sentiments.
“Yet, here in the south, there are integrated classrooms in even the most rural public schools. Blacks make up a significant portion of the population of the south. Most southern states are to this day at least 30-percent black. Nowhere else in this country will you find significant black populations in the small towns, rural areas and the far reaching suburbs. The race and economic lines are not one-in-the-same down here. Especially where I grew up and currently live (the Atlanta area), there are upper, middle, working class and impoverished white and black families. We make friendships across racial lines. We feel ashamed about the south's history. But many communities--like mine--are about half black and half white. Occasionally something comes up, but for the most part everyone gets along. Like your family in Mississippi, we even intermarry and attend some of the same churches.
“When I went off to college in the north, I had classmates asking me, "What was it like to grow up in the racist south?" They, of course, had the same high school textbooks (that always teach about Selma, Little Rock and Tuscaloosa while failing to mention the Boston school riots or the Watts riots or the story of the terrible racism Tommie Smith and John Carlos dealt with at San Jose State).
“The problem was, the racism I saw in Maryland was much worse than anything I had ever witnessed in Georgia. Sure, there were less jumbo-wheeled trucks with confederate decals (not that there are THAT many down here), but in Maryland they had private schools. None of the white kids went to the failing minority-majority public schools. None of the white churches I found had more than one or two black families attending. All of the colleges' janitors and cafeteria workers were minorities (almost all of them black), but barely 7-percent of the students were. You could count the black professors on one hand.
“In my high school we had a roughly 50-50 student split and both black and white janitors, teachers and administrators.
“In Maryland I saw racism that was institutionalized to the point that the white people who lived all around it didn't even notice. Instead they grilled me about the racist south. I was appalled. And I felt betrayed by my own education.
“Your story reminded of that feeling. The south is such a convenient target because of the stereotypes and history. But, I truly believe (after living in Maryland, California and Hawaii and traveling all throughout the lower 48), that the south I grew up in and returned to is much further along when it comes to real racial progress than just about anywhere else that I've seen in this country.
“In your story, you talked about your relatives that have real black friends. They've accepted and love their own black family members. Yet, your big "turn" was that one of your relatives doesn't want poor blacks moving in next door. Your Mississippi family's evolution when it comes to race relations is truly an uplifting story.
“That some racist attitudes might still carry some weight in that branch of your family is not surprising, but I think you could find plenty of examples of the same mentality in your California environs. Maybe you would have had to "read between the lines" a little bit to find them, but they are there. Calling out Mississippi is just too easy.
“It gives those outside the south one more reason to feel free of guilt and above it all.
“Of course, your family is your story. And you can't make up things about them. And I realize that there is much more to your post than just your family's story.
“thanks again for writing.