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White people and ‘our blacks’

The New York Times ran a story [1] the other day about race in Rick Perry’s small Texas hometown, in which the following quote appeared:

“We weren’t integrated nearly as rapidly as the North,” she said. “But we’ve always had a different relationship with our blacks than the North has, too. It’s often been said, and I think it’s true, we love them individually and kind of distrust them as a group, whereas in the North, they don’t want to get too close to them individually but they embrace them as a group.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates notes, [2]with amusing understatement:

I guess. I tend to think that in a town where “our blacks” is an actual phrase, integration will tend to go slow.

Well, yes, he’s right about that. TNC goes on to say that the Texas woman’s statement shows “that white and black Southerners generally come from the same seed, and are entwined in a way, the black and white Northerners are not.” TNC says his wife is taking a class on racism and intellectual thought, and is “amazed” to discover that early scientists argued that black people were a separate species, while slave owners (!) argued for the slaves’ humanity. Says TNC: “It makes a strange kind of sense. The slave-owners were surrounded by blacks. They weren’t just sitting around examining skulls.”

I like reading TNC because he really works hard to go deeper in exploring issues of race and history in America, versus simply emoting and attitudinizing, which is the attitude of so many commentators across the racial spectrum. As a native Southerner, I can tell you that the complicated relationship — emotional, spiritual, psychological, and so forth — between Southern blacks and Southern whites (and, with the Creoles of New Orleans, among Southern blacks) is almost beyond the ability of the rationalist Northern mind to comprehend. It is dark and mysterious, terrible and sometimes beautiful, more the sort of thing for a novel than a scientific abstract.

TNC’s remark about “our blacks” brought to mind a story from my own past, in which I committed a journalistic sin in covering up unintentional racism for the sake of the common good. More after the jump.

The year was 1994, and I’d been living in my hometown in the Deep South for the winter. I heard about a tiny black Baptist church in town that had been ordered to destroy its building and get off the Rosedown Plantation property — this at the command of the plantation’s new owner, an out-of-town businessman. As news spread of the threat to the church, the community united, white and black, to save it; the building was a modest, modern red-brick building, but the congregation it served had been continuously on that property since their slave ancestors were first converted to Christianity in the early 19th century. The New York Times wrote a story [3]about the controversy. Excerpts:

On the surface, the majestic Rosedown plantation house, perhaps the most famous antebellum home in Louisiana, and the tiny Rosedown Baptist Church, most of whose 90 members are descended from the slaves who built the house, don’t share much more than a name and some common soil.

But often the surface does not tell very much about life in a place like St. Francisville, which is about as Old South as it gets. Just ask the out-of-town businessman who bought the plantation and is now trying to evict the church, bringing down the wrath of an unlikely alliance whose most visible members are black parishioners and white dowagers.

“This is heinous, it’s dastardly, it’s so unkind and reprehensible I don’t know what else to say,” fumed Elisabeth Dart, president of the West Feliciana Historical Society. “It’s morally indefensible to attack a church, and a small church at that. White, black, green, purple, it doesn’t matter.”

More:

Since Rosedown was built, the plantation had belonged to only two families until last month, when it was sold to Gene Slivka, a businessman from Townsend, Ga. He made an immediate impact, telling members of Rosedown Baptist, which sits on a tiny slice of the 2,000-acre plantation well away from the main house, that they would have to move. They had six months to demolish the church building and put a black fence around its adjacent cemetery, which they would no longer use.

“He came and told us the church is the people, not the building, and we would do just as well elsewhere,” said the Rev. Lafayette Veal Jr., pastor of Rosedown Baptist and son of its previous pastor. “But for us, this is like when Moses walked up to that burning bush, and the Lord told him to pull off thy shoes for the ground you stand on is holy ground. This ground here is a sanctuary. It’s holy ground.”

Now, I should say that the Times came down because I phoned their Atlanta bureau and got them interested in it by faxing them a copy of a story I did about the controversy. It was my story that got the publicity ball rolling, and that ultimately caused enough public pressure that Slivka relented. I say that not to praise myself, but to put what I’m about to tell you in context.

As I was reporting the initial story, I interviewed a local white woman who had taken an active role in defending the church. She could have sat on the sidelines, but she didn’t. She had, and has, a good heart, and couldn’t stand to sit by and let her poor black neighbors suffer. When she spoke to me, she used the phrase “our blacks,” or “our Negroes,” can’t remember which. That little phrase disclosed a paternalism that I perfectly well knew was common in her generation of white people — she was older than I, of course. It was so common that you wouldn’t think a thing of it, and you certainly wouldn’t be aware how objectionable others would find it in this day and age.

If I had been Peter Applebome of the New York Times and gotten that quote from a white woman active in the fight to save the black church, I would have used it. The phrase tells so much about the complexity of this story, and of life in the South. It was by no means a “gotcha” quote; in fact, it was a quote that told a more complete truth about this situation. He would have been absolutely justified in using it. But I wasn’t a disinterested outside observer; I was a temporary resident of this town, and someone who was anxious that this little church not be bulldozed by the outsider. I knew that this white woman had a good heart, and meant well, and had no idea how her words would sound to outsiders, or even to her black neighbors. So I didn’t use that quote, because I didn’t want to embarrass a good woman who meant no harm by it, and I didn’t want it to become a point of division in the struggle to save the church.

I guess that was a journalistic sin, but I’m not really sorry for it.

It is interesting, though, to think about how alien that phrase sounds to white people of my generation, raised in the same town. We went to integrated schools; the older white lady had been educated and acculturated by segregation. The basic social fact of our encounter with blacks was egalitarianism. I don’t mean that things were in fact equal, but that the baseline for whites like me was that we were all going to the same school, and had the same opportunities. However misguided and unrealistic this may have been, the point is that even though my generation didn’t have the same degree of racial suspicion and animosity as our forebears did, we also didn’t feel the same sense of obligation to the local black community. If you had told us that only 10, 20 years earlier, black kids and white kids went by law to separate schools, I doubt we could have really understood what that meant.

Not so with this older white lady from my story. She had been formed by the legacy of paternalism left over from the days when black people really were “ours” — meaning, owned by white people (though I doubt very much that that woman’s ancestors had owned slaves). What the lady meant by “our blacks” was the sense of responsibility the white community felt towards their black neighbors. Yes, it was partly, and maybe mostly, the result of condescending paternalism. But I am sure it was also part of a decent and humane sense of moral debt owed to people who were so poor and uneducated today because of how whites in the past treated their ancestors. It is very hard, maybe impossible, to disentangle these strands of moral sentiment. The point is, whatever that lady’s real motivations, when her powerless black neighbors needed help, she moved to help them, because she felt morally obliged to do so. To paraphrase Ta-Nehisi Coates, this woman wasn’t just sitting around thinking idealistically about black people, and trying to come up with the “correct” way of thinking about race; black folks were the people she lived with. They were not abstractions; they were concrete.

It would be a mistake, I think, to attribute her actions on behalf of the black church as motivated by guilt over racism. It was something else. It came, I am certain, from a sense of duty — not reparation, but noblesse oblige. Big difference. But to have exposed this dear woman to the withering judgments of outsiders who had no idea about how she had been formed by her culture, and who would reduce her act of charity, whatever its obscure motivations, to racist paternalism, would have been cruel, and would have done a disservice to the complicated truth of the matter.

We like our history like we like our morals: written straight. But everything authentically human is crooked.

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25 Comments To "White people and ‘our blacks’"

#1 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On October 11, 2011 @ 12:36 pm

I have a suspicion that racial attitudes toward people of African descent up north is in large part due to their SOUTHERN culture. The small things that can make one person grate on another person’s nerves, the subtle differences in cultural standards, are things that southerners of any complexion have in common, while southerners of any complexion clash up north. I once experimented with the notion that southern governors could begin lodging complaints with northern governers about how the northern states were treating people who migrated from “our state” on account of adhering to their “traditional culture.”

I once worked with a veteran from Oklahoma who told of sitting around with three army buddies in December, talking about black-eyed peas for New Years Day. The man speaking had a congenital melanin deficiency. Two of the others were from Alabama, both dark-skinned. The fourth was equally dark, but from New Jersey, and he said “How do you know about that? That’s SOUL FOOD.” All three of the other GI’s explained that everyone down south eats that way. The guy from New Jersey couldn’t believe it.

All that aside though, the southern states did institutionalize racism in a way northern and western states did not in the same legalistic way or to the same pervasive extent. Breaking both the south and the nation of many such habits was a delicate political interplay of north-migrating black voting blocks, international diplomacy in the cold war era, various communist, liberal, and conservative motivations for ending Jim Crow, or for not letting the others claim credit. It took a lot of work and sacrifice. When the dust cleared, the south does seem to have gotten over it, psychologically, faster and better than the north. That’s as much because southern people of African descent knew “their white folks” better than most northern-settled people of African descent got to know ANYBODY who continued to choose to think of themselves as “white.”

#2 Comment By Noah On October 11, 2011 @ 12:53 pm

It is this kind of angle that gets lost in discussions of the Three-Fifths Compromise in the Constitution. In our age of tyrannical PC, this compromise is presented as Dead White Male southern proto-Nazis saying that “people of color” were less than fully human. The reality is that Northern opponents of slavery wanted slaves counted solely as non-human property, which could then be taxed. It was the pro-slavery Southerners who wanted slaves counted as full human beings, so as to give the South greater weight in the House of Representatives. The compromise was to count slaves as three-fifths for Congressional apportionment and potential taxation. (As it happened, Congress never levied a tax on slaves, so the South won the debate on both counts.)

#3 Comment By Stef On October 11, 2011 @ 12:59 pm

“America’s original sin” (to quote the blessed Walker Percy) never quits, does it?

#4 Comment By JustMe On October 11, 2011 @ 1:13 pm

Some of the most ardent segregationists had a paternalistic side. Before Brown v. Board of Ed., Orval Faubus was seen in some African American circles as an “ally” of the community because his support for and expansion of their schools. I believe that Strom Thurmond made an active effort at cracking down on lynching and expanding African American colleges. I can’t help but think that this kind of paternalism goes hand-in-glove with segregation. All white people, by dint of their skin color, are blessed under the segregationist system with the ability to see themselves as part of the noblesse class that can participate in oblige. Take away segregation, and you take away their ability to feel as though they’re part of an upper class that they can participate in. Not to say that they were all people consciously participating in this cynical enterprise, but take that away, and their sense of place becomes disrupted.

Humans are not, in general, bad people. They generally mean well given the circumstances and systems they find themselves in, even if those circumstances and systems are essentially evil ones. “Racist paternalism” sounds like a bad thing because it has the modifier “racist” in it. Paternalism isn’t malicious. The “racism” that modifies it isn’t coming from an act of hostility from the individual but is part of the system in which everyone is operating. I don’t think it’s unfair to look at these quaint attitudes as a sort of racial paternalism, and not mean it in a condemning way, but as a sort of “these are the mindsets under which she operates.” It’s what people mean by the statement that racism is a structure and system rather than just an individual act.

#5 Comment By Rod Dreher On October 11, 2011 @ 1:20 pm

Let me point out that I’m not going to let this thread turn into a eugenics discussion. To the reader that posted the long, link-filled post, that’s why I’m not posting what you wrote.

#6 Comment By Joseph R. Stromberg On October 11, 2011 @ 1:38 pm

Good for the Southern dowagers! America could use more of them.

As for the red-brick church, good job saving it. We’ve had quite enough Enclosures in recent centuries.

#7 Comment By Scott Lahti On October 11, 2011 @ 1:52 pm

Here’s a revealing document:

[4]

APRIL 14, 1969

FOR THE PRESIDENT

I keep trying to think of ways for you to establish a posture with respect to civil rights issues that is both admirable in its own right, and somehow more than an incremental extension of the programs of the past four Presidents. (Five, if you want to give Roosevelt credit for the few things he did.) I think I have one.

I do not believe this is a racist country. But it was. And there are many only half perceived carryovers of attitudes still embedded in our every day routines.

One of these is the practice of the U.S. Government to classify its citizens as “White,” or “Nonwhite.” White is normal. Not to be white is not to be normal. That is the only possible interpretation. Once you begin to think of it, the present practice is outrageous.

What if you were to issue a directive that henceforth population statistics would be divided into four categories, by continent or origin? E.G. American (i.e. Indians), European, African, Oriental. Some other scheme might prove attractive if we were to think harder. Does this interest you?

Daniel P. Moynihan
_____Yes
_____Premature

#8 Comment By True Grit On October 11, 2011 @ 2:07 pm

I could see why “our blacks” could be offensive, that being said just look at the comments everyone from Obama to The Atlantic in general have said about white america in the past.

I consider it a pretty bad trend that TNC and the Atlantic are being quoted at this site, does anyone on Amconmag believe very left of center sites ever quote Pat Buchanan and Rand Paul types in a positive manner on racial issues?

#9 Comment By Mitchell Young On October 11, 2011 @ 2:26 pm

The irony is that segregation — de facto, state-funded, skirting the law — is now endorsed by northern paternalists.

[5]

#10 Comment By Burrhus On October 11, 2011 @ 2:48 pm

We are all racists. Keep reading and I will convince you that that is true.

You are walking down a street and you see two identical buildings that are on fire and will imminently collapse. On top of one building is a family – father, mother, son and daughter – of your race; on the other is a similar family of some other race. You don’t know anything about either family except its race.

There is no one else around and no telephone. There is one ladder between the buildings. You can see that you only have time to save one family.

Which family do you save?

You see, I told you that we are all racists.

#11 Comment By Steve Nicoloso On October 11, 2011 @ 3:18 pm

You see, I told you that we are all racists.

No, Burrhus. You’ve only proved that highly contrived hypotheticals make a poor basis for generalization.

#12 Comment By Matt On October 11, 2011 @ 3:24 pm

In English, possessives like ‘my’ and ‘our’ denote membership as well as ownership. So when someone says ‘our blacks’, they mean the black people in the same town or other collective as them. In the same sense, when you talk about your classmates you aren’t meaning that you own them. It’s sad that this has to be explained, but anti-racism makes people stupid. The same foolishness has people apologizing for using the word ‘niggardly’. Perhaps when people stop being niggardly with their uses of charity and common sense, we can all act like normal human beings again.

#13 Comment By VikingLS On October 11, 2011 @ 4:03 pm

“I consider it a pretty bad trend that TNC and the Atlantic are being quoted at this site, does anyone on Amconmag believe very left of center sites ever quote Pat Buchanan and Rand Paul types in a positive manner on racial issues?”

Not all segregation is racial. Political segregation is alive and well it seems.

Quote whoever you like, for whatever reason, Rod.

#14 Comment By K. W. Jeter On October 11, 2011 @ 5:18 pm

Well, Mr. Dreher, I suppose you believe it’s your job to do so, but you and others are wringing an awful lot of contrived meaning out of a simple, harmless phrase. I can assure you that most normal people would assume that when the nice lady said, “our blacks,” she meant no more than “the blacks who live in our town.”

If the only way to find evidence of racism, paternalistic or otherwise, is to examine language this minutely, then truly the millennium has arrived and we are in fact living in a post-racial society.

#15 Comment By Angela On October 11, 2011 @ 5:22 pm

I’ve learned a lot reading TNC and his commentators. Thanks for exploring more of the nuances of racism and privilege. There is a time for conversation and then a time for contemplation of what has been said. Thanks for writing that is often weighty enough for some contemplation.

#16 Comment By Peter H On October 11, 2011 @ 5:29 pm

True Grit, Dreher’s willingness to engage that which most conservatives ignore is precisely why I read his blog.

#17 Comment By Susan On October 11, 2011 @ 5:29 pm

Mr. Dreher,

Is it possible that there is a lot of localism mixed into “our blacks” as in they are our friends, our neighbors, and our citizens? As opposed to someone else’s local demographics? We may tut, tut at this happening in another state or county, but NIMBY? I’m not convinced it’s merely paternalism. I’m thinking the same thing would most likely happen no matter which race/ethnicity was substituted with a similar long-term history with the church and land. Does any small town take kindly to someone coming in and upsetting the apple cart? Just thinking out loud.

#18 Comment By Charles Cosimano On October 11, 2011 @ 6:09 pm

Burrhus problem is ten years out of date. First to prove you are not racist you let both families burn equally. Second, you video it and put it on youtube.

Wecome to the New Millenium.

#19 Comment By Ostrea On October 11, 2011 @ 7:33 pm

A number of years ago in Dallas I heard a black radio talk show host talking about a police raid on some houses of prostitution operating as massage parlors. He referred to them as “our massage parlors.” I don’t believe that he was claiming ownership. He merely meant that the massage parlors were located in the city we shared.

#20 Comment By Rod Dreher On October 11, 2011 @ 7:40 pm

Yes, it can be used in that way. But I don’t think the older lady in my hometown was using it in that way. I also don’t think she was in the least bit trying to be disrespectful to black folks. Her usage was not uncommon for white people in our town of that generation. You would *never* hear a white person of my generation or younger (I’m 44) refer to black people in our town as “our” blacks; it would be “the” blacks. Again, I think the woman’s use of “our” reflects not malice, but was a vestige of an earlier time, and a different mentality.

#21 Comment By MattSwartz On October 12, 2011 @ 7:52 am

I have said here and elsewhere that at the time of Brown vs. BOEsouthern governors might have been perfectly happy to desegregate their high schools by race if only they’d re-segregated them by sex at the same time.

Had they done that, race relations in this country would be much better than they are now, and I can hardly think that relations between the sexes would be worse.

The military, which was essentially a single-sex institution until after Vietnam, was a great catalyst for the breakdown of racism.

#22 Pingback By Where left and right meet « Panther Red On October 13, 2011 @ 3:12 pm

[…] USA, I should mention that at the moment, The American Conservative‘s website carries a rather beautiful blog posting on that topic from Rod Dreher.  Mr Dreher is responding to a short piece that Ta-Nehisi Coates […]

#23 Comment By Burrhus On October 17, 2011 @ 11:20 am

Steve Nicoloso, on October 11th, 2011 at 3:18 pm Said:
You see, I told you that we are all racists.
No, Burrhus. You’ve only proved that highly contrived hypotheticals make a poor basis for generalization.

@Steve: Typical response from those who refuse to accept logic that interferes with their verbal conditioning.

#24 Comment By Bubbamae On March 28, 2012 @ 5:46 am

How telling that the concern was mainly over not hurting the woman’s feelings, which is cool, with no concern over how even the blacks involved would feel reading her statement. Just because they don’t say they’re offended out loud doesn’t mean they aren’t.

#25 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 7, 2012 @ 1:15 pm

I always appreciate the notation of what it means to be a black by the scientific community for more than 600 plus years. It’s oft left out of discussion s of color dynamics.

Though, I would question the contention that slave owners saw their slaves as human as we understand humanity today. They saw them as a lesser human, lower on the theoritical evolutionary ladder. That and the Bible stody of the mark of Cain, was the foundation which justified slavery and the subsequent treatment of black citizens,

During one of my history courses in college I was stunned to hear that the US military, actually petitioned the French Government during WWI not to bestow awards on black soldiers. Because they would think themselves equal, such thoughts would lead to problems back in the US — which sould lead to lynchings if they thought themselves equal to pursue white women . .

I have never seen that document. Bt given the history on this matter: I have an inkling of it’s veracity. I wonder if that petition, if accurate, noted “our black troops.”