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Andy Ashcraft

Andy Ashcraft
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Andy Ashcraft is a game designer living in sunny Van Nuys, CA with his lovely and very funny wife, Jackie Kashian and a twelve-year-old iguana named Tiberius Drackus. Andy hates the word 'blog', so this is his first weblog. Special thanks to bionicStephen for the cool new avatar!

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NOVEMBER 16, 2008 4:24AM

A Defense of the South

Rate: 9 Flag

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…

 

“Andy,

“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.
“-Edgar”

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Since Edgar's letter is the post, I'll respond here. Edgar is right in that I totally didn't need to use these stories about my southern family to illustrate my points. I could have used any number of Los Angeles stories just as well. Racism is alive and well all across our great nation. It's not OK to heap it all onto the southern states, as if that's the only place it occurs.

L.A. is a fascinating place, racially speaking. Maybe all big cities are like this. Each immigrant community finds a center to clump around, and cling to, giving each neighborhood a different ethnic flavor. My neighborhood is a mix of white, black, El Salvadorano and Armenian. I love the local grocery store (Jon's, on Sepulveda and Sherman Oaks) because I'm constantly finding some new treat to try.

But these communities don't melt into this great pot lightly. The reason for it is the same here as it is anywhere else; we're most comfortable interacting with the people we can best predict; the people we expect will be most likely to think the same way we do.

Thanks again, Edgar!

Andy A
To add yet another view here: I'm from the North (Ohio). I've lived in the South (Georgia). I might say to Edgar that as we Northerners don't see through the veil of our own racism easily, the same might be true of the South. Did you ever invite a black friend over to your house when you lived in the South? I did, but my friend politely and steadfastly refused to come, knowing that showing up in a white suburban area would be the most dangerous thing he could do.

As a graduate student at University of Georgia, I was surprised to hear for the first time the opinion that South had done nothing to start the (what we Northerners call) the Civil War, and that the War of Northern Aggression had nothing to do with slavery. It occurred to me that at the parties where these opinions were aired, there were no black students to offer the opposing viewpoint that to their ancestors, for example, slavery might have been THE issue. Not that a black student raised in the South would dare.

It's all well and good for us open-minded liberals to bewail the racism found in every corner of this country, but these concerns can't be aired fully while there's still only one race in the room; the truth is still too brutal to take head on. For my part, much of the racial tension in this country, North and South (I can't speak for the west), can be boiled down to a few direct truths. For one, in the South, the blacks fear the whites; it's the weave of everyday life there, coloring all transactions and behaviors, and it's why Edgar's experiences with his black neighbors will never encompass the full truth. In the North, the whites fear the blacks.
My compliments to both of you.
As a long time southerner, born and raised, who has also lived Up North and overseas, I would agree with tarheeltoker's assessment and history as seen by C Vann Woodward who I also studied. And I'll take it over the north any day. I've made my peace with the south and I doubt I will live anywhere else. It was a real thrill to see so many states go blue for Obama, though, and to see the kind of attitude re-adjustment I found when canvassing young and middled aged voters. The older ways are dying out, I find; and actually we're living pretty well together. It's a process. A long one, but it's a process. Take it from this Hillbilly Jew, a Jewish woman of New England parents (who were first generation Americans) who grew up in Appalachia in the 50s and 60s. I've pretty much seen it all.
Very interesting post and comments. I grew up in the midwest and went to Catholic schools which were integrated in the 50s. I remember in first grade, I held hands with an African-American girl. My mother saw this and had a fit because she was quite racist. Later, in high school, I was reprimanded by my boyfriend for being too friendly and close with the African-Americans. The high school was integrated but social circles were not. So, I can back up a little bit what tarheeltoker said about whites not wanting to be close physically to blacks. In my own family that still lives in St. Louis, I hear comments along this line, all said without the notion that they would be perceived as the least bit racist.

The funny thing about my mom is that she ended up with dementia and in a nursing home. Her best friend for awhile was an African-American woman.

Obama's speech about racism back in the spring and his ultimate election has prompted many conversations about race. I think it's good for the country.
Andy: I truly appreciate people who can graciously listen to others and who can learn the facts that broaden their knowledge. So, thank you for posting Edgar's letter. In the past eight years, especially, the national discourse on racism and other controversial issues has been disrespectful to either side and often punctuated by shrieking one's point of view so that another person's thoughts are drowned out. Your posting of Edgar's letter shows that we still can be civil in our discussions of these very important issues.
Thanks, Jim, Tarheel, Joan, Lisa and Jason. That feedback was fast!

I completely agree that Obama's speech this spring and subsequent election is going to be really healthy for this country RE opening the doors to more dialog. Jim has the best point (so far), though by saying that " these concerns can't be fully aired while there's still only one race in the room." Jim, can I assume you're as fish-belly-white as I am?

Cheers!

Andy A
As a Mississippi native, I've lived with this issue all my life. I grew up in an era both horrible and hopeful, and that experience is central to who I am. I also lived "Up North" for 17 years--5 years in Wisconsin, 2 in New York City, and 10 in Ithaca, New York.

One important difference became very clear to me. In places where there is very little diversity, it can seem as if there are no race-related problems. But I've always thought that if a large number of culturally different people of another race moved into the area you would see it become the "Mississippi of the North" in a matter of minutes.

Jim Smith should come spend some time in Jackson, Mississippi before he makes the claim that blacks' fears of whites is "the weave of everyday life there, coloring all transactions and behaviors." I'll be sure and mention that to my black friends who live on the same street as I do, who come and go from my house as freely as I come and go from theirs. (It helps that we all have keys to each other's houses.)

Race relations in the U.S. remain complicated and I'm not claiming that Mississippi has reached some ideal plane of enlightenment. But the notion that blacks here live in constant fear of whites is not only false it is downright defamatory. If that's true, how come so many black children and grandchildren of people who migrated north out of Mississippi during the bad old days are moving back into the state now? How is that Mississippi has more black elected officials than any other state?

This is the sort of crap that Edgar is explicitly tackling in his letter. We have had to fight all our lives to erase the simplistic caricatures and substitute a more complex and honest portrait of who we are here in Mississippi and the rest of the South. I'm grateful to you, Edgar, for being willing to calmly and kindly address this issue. And very grateful to you, Andy, for listening and for giving Edgar the chance to get this issue out there for others to consider.
I hope I haven't insulted anyone here, and I ask that my earlier post be seen in terms of responding to Edgar's comments (as a white southerner venturing into northern states) and constrasting/comparing his experience with my own (as a white northerner living in the south). I agree that there is too much stereotyping of our lives and experiences from one part of the country to the other. I actually agree with Edgar's assessment of northern types of racism. Of course it exists, only in different forms that are determined by regional history and cultures. Here in northeast Ohio in the nineteenth century, there was competition for the numerous jobs in mining and manufacturing from all over the country and the world. Many eastern European groups came here to start their lives anew and to ascend into the middle class. When blacks started coming up this way from the south in the earlier part of the twentieth century, they were seen as economic competition and were resisted (much as the European immigrants were when they arrived). So the sources of racism here are different; there are tensions here that post-date the civil war and Reconstruction by decades, by groups that didn't even exist in America at the time of the north/south conflict.

That said, Edgar is quite right in his observations about racism in the north and midwest--I am in complete agreement. Whites in the north wear blinders where their racism is concerned. There are areas in Cleveland where, as in the south, I could not invite a black friend to my house (Little Italy on the east side comes to mind). My point is that we ALL, blacks and whites together, even despite our very best of intentions, succumb to blinder-dom at some point.

And I concede that my experiences in the South are limited to a five-year period in northwest Georgia and northeast Alabama (although, Susan, I have family in Jackson and yes, I've been there). In an apartment development where my wife and I started my family in Georgia as I taught at a small college, I was surprised when a black family moved in to one of the duplexes. I was further surprised to see how well they were taken into the community, which was an all-white blend of college students, teachers and retirees. The mother of the black family seemed to get along well with the other ladies in the development, particularly an older single woman living two doors away. I would see them chatting together on the short lawn in front of their apartments, rocking in chairs and laughing together. And then one day the older woman and I were talking when it came out that she had complained to the management that how it was a blight unto God that we whites had to share the machines in the laundry room with that the black family; could I stand it knowing that I was washing my clothes in the same machine as them?

I have learned, over time, anywhere in the United States, I cannot take anything for granted when it comes to race relations. What I can do is take every person for who they are, what they are, as fairly as I can, I guess. But racism seems to be like a dandelion; you may think you'e plucked it out, but the roots run deeper and wilder than you think.
Oh, and yes, Andy; fish-belly white. I've even lost my Georgia tan. Melanoma runs in the family :)
Big wheels keep on turning... :-)

Rated.
Andy, thanks for posting this and furthering the discussion.

Susan, my experiences apparently mirror yours

I think that the demographics behind of the rapid growth of the Atlanta area over the past few decades says a lot about how people grew up and how they feel about race.

There remains several lilly white areas (one in particular with a terrible racist past: Forsyth County) that have stayed so and in turn have been magnets for white families moving in from other areas of the country. These are mostly located in the northern suburbs (North and East Cobb, Forsyth County, Cherokee County, North Fulton County) and there is also Peachtree City and McDonough on the south side. Jim is right about one thing--there still are areas that blacks avoid. I have heard from black friends that Forsyth County (pop. of over 120,000) is one of them... (I've actually never been to Cumming or any other part of Forsyth County, so if anyone on here has, do tell me about it).

My original intent was not to suggest that the south has completely moved past racism. I do, however, believe that great progress has been made.

And while it is extremely important to retell the tragedies of hate that fill the south's past, it is also important to teach younger generations that racism in America is not confined by geography. I will be happy when school kids learn about the stand off in Little Rock and on the next page discover that it was Boston--not Atlanta or Charlotte or Birmingham--that was the last major U.S. city to contentiously integrate public schools
Came to this late, and as I said in another post: I'm reading "At Canaan's Edge," and Chicago damn near defeated MLK. There's a moment of tension and drama in the book where some of his folks (for smart reasons of resources and experience) don't want him to go into Chicago, they want him to stay in the south, where he understands the issues/politics/culture -- and he says he can't touch the full sickness of racism without making Northerners aware of their particular strain of it and their complicity. It's a real "What would you do?" moment in the book, fascinating. I really like this dialogue, thank you Andy and Edgar!