Racism Doesn't Want to Look at Itself

Socrates might have us believe that the unexamined life is not worth living, but plenty goes unexamined in this life.  Or maybe we know it is there, and we look at it from time to time, but we’d rather not.  We’d rather not see the clutter in our own houses.  We have other things on our mind.

So it is that talking about racism is very difficult.  It’s easy to look at other people’s social ills.  Not so much our own.

In Mississippi where I live, inevitably if the subject of racism comes up, someone has a story to tell about how it is actually worse somewhere else.  We’re just the ones carrying–unfairly–the brunt of the blame.  There’s some truth in this.  Try being a Mississippian traveling to other places.  People glance down to see if you are wearing shoes.

Once while in another state, I invited a woman to come visit me in Mississippi.  She said, “I’m not going there.  They shoot black people there.”  You know I’ve lived here my whole life, and I’ve never actually witnessed a shooting against a black person or anyone else.  The only people I’ve known who’ve been shot were victims of hunting accidents. In many parts of Mississippi the racial populations are fairly evenly divided between black and white, and in most of those places people just go about their daily lives with shootings of anything other than a deer or a turkey a rarity.

That’s not to say we don’t have our share of violence.  Jackson has a notorious number of crime reports on the evening news.  Largely, it is a race issue, but it’s of the sort that has to do with the general woes of urban poverty–drugs, gangs, kids growing up without a sense of hope, and so forth.  Jackson has a history of racial segregation to blame for many of the lines between the poor and the affluent.  It also has white flight to blame for many of the problems in the public schools and for failing businesses in areas that have now become more crime ridden.  All this is true.  I don’t know, however, that this makes Jackson’s problems any different from other cities.  The degree of poverty is the only thing separating any city with a high crime rate from those with lower crime rates.

If you live in Mississippi, though, you hear more than your share of bad things about your state.  We have the lowest literacy rates, the highest teen pregnancy rates, the highest obesity rates, the lowest test scores in math and science.  We’re the state that makes all the other states feel better about themselves, and no one ever lets us forget that.

But surprisingly enough for those who don’t know, we wear shoes, we read books, we even have art museums and symphonies, as we’ll be happy to tell you.

We’re used to defending ourselves against crazy accusations from people who don’t know that it is actually safe to walk across the street here, and if you do, you’ll probably find a Starbucks on the other side.

So it is that the most natural course of action is to defend ourselves against any accusation of racism.  It’s not as bad as you think, we say.  It’s actually worse in other places where people don’t live side by side, we say.  It’s complicated, we say.

That’s all true enough, but it isn’t good enough.  We have a bad reputation for civil rights because we earned it, and we still live with it every day.

Recently, I watched Morgan Freeman’s documentary, Prom Night in Mississippi. Everyone needs to see this. It does give a realistic view of this issue of segregated proms that do still exist in Mississippi. Understand that there are just as many schools in Mississippi that haven’t had a segregated prom for forty years. But still in some small towns the issue persists, for all the reasons you’ll see in Freeman’s film.

When Kirk Fordice was governor, the state welcome signs said, “Only positive Mississippi spoken here.” The signs tended to invite negative comments, but they also summed up an attitude that is prevalent in the state. We don’t want to hear anything bad about ourselves. We’ve heard too much already.

I want people to have a better image of Mississippi too. I want them to know that for the most part people here are the same as anywhere else, and that among those who aren’t the same, some actually stand out in very special ways. Mississippi produced Eudora Welty and Faith Hill, Natasha Trethewey and Leontyne Price. We should be proud of that.

But we still have the lowest literacy rates and the highest rates of teen pregnancies. We still have segregated proms. We still have segregated churches and country clubs. We need to talk, Mississippi. We need to talk about ourselves in ways that are difficult to face. Otherwise, we’re all culpable for the state of the state.

The blame game isn’t getting us anywhere. The other states point to us and say, “At least we’re not as bad as Mississippi.” We point to them and say, “They all say we’re so bad, but look at how they are worse.”

Racism takes on different characteristics in different places, but it isn’t any more defensible in one variation over another. Better we should say racism is everywhere, even here. Now what can we do about it?