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How Brown v. Board hasn’t managed to conquer the prom

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, February 24, 2009 2:00 EDT
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After reading Jesse’s post about Pat Buchanan’s racist ranting, I had an idea that it was super-duper mega-bad, but really, watching it, it’s exponentially worse than that. It’s also self-contradictory—Buchanan claims segregation is the choice of black people and then starts ranting about crime statistics, which is a tacit admission that segregation is actually his preference. So why is he washing his hands of it? (Because he’s a lying son of a bitch who shouldn’t be allowed on TV without explaining that he’s, say, a creationist.)

The fact that Buchanan gets away with just lying through his teeth like this is maddening. As Jesse explained, the history of 20th century community growth and demographic shifting makes it clear as day where the responsibility lies. But it’s not just demographic shifts, white flight, and other trends like that. In “post-racial” America, we still have plain, old, 1950s-style segregation that goes under-reported in the mainstream media for reasons I don’t fully understand. Take, for instance, the continuing custom of Southern high schools with segregated proms. Bet you haven’t heard about that, unless you have some geographic proximity to the problem. It’s far from the only way that white Southerners have resisted desegregation in the past 54 years since Brown v. the Board of Education*, but it’s one that pops up in the local news on occasion because it’s got a seasonal quality to it. There’s other, even more under-reported strategies like redistricting schools, using false diagnoses of learning disabilities to get many of the black students sent off to special ed, and even examples of entire neighborhoods seceding and making themselves their own town. But the prom is the example I’m focusing on now, because so much is made clear in the discourse over it.

The reason this is getting into the news now is that the Charleston, Mississippi high school with a segregated prom has been covered in a documentary called “Prom Night in Mississippi”. The history of the segregated proms really exposes how fundamentally dishonest it is for people like Buchanan to foist the blame onto black people. I’m sure Buchanan would point out that there’s a black prom at this high school, and that’s all the evidence you need to blame black people for segregation. But the black prom was, duh, organized because if they didn’t organize it, the black kids wouldn’t have a prom at all. Even a cursory examination of the situation reveals that the segregated prom situation exists because white parents in Charleston insisted upon it, based on a series of vicious stereotypes.

Canadian director Paul Saltzman moved into the Mississippi Delta town to document how preparations for the dance might shake up traditions and raise fears.

“When I was doing the research and asking people ‘What was the problem in having the prom together?’ what whites usually said is, ‘You know, blacks are into drugs; they’re into violence’ and on and on and on,” Saltzman said.

Morgan Freeman has been offering to pay for an integrated prom for a decade now, but the school board only took him up on the offer in 2008. So while we had a black man winning the nomination for President and people were starting to crow about “post-racial” America, these kids were having the first integrated prom. But still there was a whites-only prom that was thrown for the white kids (and their parents) who couldn’t stomach an integrated prom. In a beautiful stroke of irony, the integrated prom went off without a hitch and it seems everyone had fun, but the whites-only prom was marred by fighting.**

So, the kids had fun, the racist parents found that their worst fears had no grounding, and a small part of Mississippi inches slightly closer to joining the 20th century.*** They’re planning to have another one next year, and the school is still going to have the white prom for the uber-racists, as well. In case the moral of the story isn’t clear, it was the black prom that opened up and accepted white prom-goers to become integrated, and not the other way around. In other words, Pat Buchanan has the way this runs completely backwards, not that I expect him to change his story in the slightest.

*For people who are exhausted of the past 35 years of fighting over Roe v. Wade, it’s worth meditating on the fact that there’s been 54 years of fighting over Brown, but done in a way that gets ignored by the mainstream media more. This, if anything, makes it more frustrating.
**This doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. Once you reduce the group to the most avid racists, you’re talking a mean, sadistic group of rednecks in training. I’d be shocked if all that hostility didn’t turn into a fight.
***The 21st century will take a lot more work.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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