The recent incident at Ole Miss shouldn’t lull us into thinking that racism is confined to the South. It’s alive and well across the US
It’s black history month, and here’s how America is celebrating: another Florida jury decided that a white man who disliked “thug music” didn’t commit murder when he shot an unarmed black boy to death. Members of the Ku Klux Klan turned up at a black history month presentation at the Boone County Library in Harrison, Arkansas, wearing “Anti-Racist is a Code Word for Anti-White” stickers. Campaigning in Texas for Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott, rocker and gun fetishist Ted Nugent called Barack Obama a “communist-nurtured subhuman mongrel”. And in the early hours of 16 February, somebody “decorated” the statue of James Meredith, the first African American admitted to the University of Mississippi, with an old Confederate flag and a noose around the neck.
In the US, we like to congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come since the 1950s and 1960s. Racial prejudice is no longer enshrined in statute. The most famous scientist in the country is a black guy: astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. And 12 Years a Slave may win a slew of Oscars.
But the so-called post-racial society everybody got all excited about in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president hasn’t arrived, no matter how hard we’ve tried to will it into being. “Things have changed in the South,” said Chief Justice John G Roberts when he wrote the opinion gutting the Voting Rights Act, the most important legislation to come out of the Civil Rights Movement. As if the state legislatures of Florida, North Carolina, Indiana, Texas, Virginia and Pennsylvania (among others) weren’t passing laws to impede voting by college students, women, the poor and especially people of color.
Conservatives want to believe that African Americans need to get over it and stop whining about slavery and Jim Crow and white privilege. According to the Fox News wing of the Republican Party, racism is practiced mostly by black people like Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama, black people who apparently hate white people. Terrified of demographic projections showing that by 2043 non-Latino whites will be in a minority, they’ve convinced themselves they’re already being oppressed. One form “oppression” takes is that ghastly “political correctness”. They know they shouldn’t email pictures of President Obama in a feather head-dress with a bone through his nose or assume that a young black guy in a hoodie is going to rob, rape or murder them. They know they can’t call Martin Luther King a terrorist out loud, or make jokes in public about the black and gay football player Michael Sam.
Clearly, the pressure on white folks is immense. No wonder they need to let off a little steam by vandalizing the statue of James Meredith with the central symbol of racial violence, the noose, a reminder that in the years following the end of Reconstruction, over 3000 African Americans were lynched. Some comments in reaction to news reports insist it was just a little harmless “fun,” not like back in 1962 when Meredith first set foot on the Ole Miss campus and the place exploded in days of rioting, killing two and injuring 300.
This particular strain of stupidity is not (and never has been) confined to the states of the Old Confederacy. This January at Arizona State University, a white fraternity commemorated the Martin Luther King Jr holiday by wearing basketball jerseys, sideways baseball caps and saggin’ britches (you know, African American national costume), flashing what they imagined to be “gang signs” and drinking out of watermelon cups. Former top aides to Wisconsin governor (and possible 2016 presidential contender) Scott Walker have recently been caught sending racist emails. In New Jersey, the all-white state champion high school wrestling team tweeted out a photo of themselves cavorting in front of a black blow-up dummy hanging by a rope, and a private school in California got into the black history month spirit by serving students a lunch of fried chicken and watermelon (what? no chitlins?). Indeed, Ted Nugent is from Michigan.
The good news is that when there’s an eruption of idiocy in the South, the brighter bulbs amongst us fight back. We’re the ones with the lurid 350-year history of slavery and legal segregation, the stage on which America’s racial drama plays out. We know how to articulate the problem; we know how to call for a solution. Within hours of the Meredith statue’s desecration, University of Mississippi alumni ponied up a $25,000 reward for information on the perpetrators and students organized a rally.
The nickname “Ole Miss” refers not to “Old Mississippi,” but the name the slaves would call the eldest white lady on the plantation. Yet the university’s deep-sixed a lot of its former Old South imagery, replacing “Colonel Reb”, the mascot who looks like a cartoon antebellum plantation master. They’ve invested in the study of the South’s cultural gifts to the world: the Blues, barbecue, the writing of William Faulkner and Richard Wright.
This is not to oversell Southern enlightenment: we still vote Republican and a billboard with SECEDE in gigantic letters has just appeared in Tallahassee, the capital of Florida. It was put up by the League of the South, self-proclaimed neo-Confederates who’ve apparently forgotten just how well secession worked out in 1861. But despite the South’s bloody and hateful history, there’s hope for progressivism. The new generation, the kind of young people who surrounded the statue of James Meredith at Ole Miss, holding its bronze hands and calling for an end to hatred, will stick around – and, as the old song says, take their stand in Dixie.
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