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The South As Eternal Scapegoat

Did you see this on the New York Times website? It was at the top, above the fold, until a few hours ago. Headline: Slavery Nostalgia Is Real, And It’s Dangerous Here’s how it starts: Northerners may be a little shocked that anyone could feel a bit nostalgic for slavery, in the manner of the government-hating […]

Did you see this on the New York Times website? It was at the top, above the fold, until a few hours ago. Headline:

Slavery Nostalgia Is Real, And It’s Dangerous

Here’s how it starts:

Northerners may be a little shocked that anyone could feel a bit nostalgic for slavery, in the manner of the government-hating Nevada rancher, Cliven Bundy. But in the South, such sentiments are hardly unheard of, even if they are usually muttered in private over a few bourbons rather than spoken at a news conference.

Occasionally, in fact, they are expressed or embraced by public figures. A particularly relevant case started about 14 years ago…

So, let’s see. The Times takes the case of a white supremacist lunatic in Nevada, which, last time I checked, is neither Southern nor was Confederate, to crack on the the South. The newspaper alerts us to the “dangerous” phenomenon of slavery nostalgia, tells us that it is “hardly unheard of” — a bizarre formulation, suggesting something less than confidence in the thesis to follow — and concedes that to the extent that it is heard of, it’s in private, amid drunkards. And the best case the writer, David Firestone, can come up with is something from 14 years ago!

It gets even stupider, winding up with a connection between the hide-your-children-hide-your-wife scourge of slavery nostalgia and — wait for it — homophobia.

Listen, I grew up in the heart of the Deep South, live here again, and can see my town’s courthouse-lawn statue to a Confederate soldier from my back window. The only danger posed by “slavery nostalgia” are to the reputations of cranks stupid enough to profess it. Even the very excitable David Firestone admits that the case from 14 years ago fostered a backlash against the barbecue-sauce-selling nostalgist, to wit:

Mr. Bessinger was denounced and his restaurants boycotted. Many retail stores pulled his distinctive (to be kind) yellow mustardy barbecue sauce from their shelves.

Lo, Bessinger — who really was a nasty piece of work, it appears — died earlier this year. According to his obituary in The State newspaper, Bessinger’s slavery nostalgia was an economic disaster for him:

In 2000, after The State newspaper disclosed that Bessinger was distributing pro-slavery tracts at his Maurice’s Gourmet Barbecue headquarters in West Columbia – under the shadow of the enormous Confederate flag he flew outside – people began boycotting his eateries.

Stores including Walmart and the U.S. military pulled his well-known mustard barbecue sauce from their shelves. Bessinger later would claim the boycott cost him $20 million. In his 2001 biography, “Defending My Heritage,” Bessinger blamed media reports for the loss of business.

At the time, Bessinger was distributing pro-slavery audiotapes and gave customers a discount if they bought his literature. South Carolina had “biblical slavery,” Bessinger claimed, which was kinder and different than other forms of slavery.

And not only that, but Bessinger’s lifelong slavery nostalgia actually helped the civil rights movement in South Carolina. Bobby Donaldson, a black University of South Carolina historian, told the State, “The more Bessinger drew a line in the sand, it actually enabled the movement here to get traction.”

So much for the “dangerous” phenomenon of slavery nostalgia, New York Times. Do you guys even try to be fair when covering a culture and a region not your own?

As a matter of fact, you ought to pay more attention to culturally policing your own region, New York Times. Via Andrew Sullivan, I note that Razib Khan points out that most so-called “apartheid schools” are in the North, not the South, and that people of all races more or less self-segregate, the liberal media focus disproportionately on the South. Khan:

The South has a particular history with race, and that is an important history. But the continuous focus on this region of the country is I think driven in part by the reality that the cultural elites, often white progressives, are not keen on shining a light on the segregation which they themselves have passively accepted in their own lives.

In fact, the worst segregation of blacks and whites is in major urban areas of the Great Lakes. According to the Census the most segregated cities are Detroit, Milwaukee, New York, Newark, and Chicago. But for some reason there are fewer exposes on how upper middle class, usually white, couples in major “Blue America” urban areas flee racially diverse public schools for the suburbs or private schools. The reasons for these actions are defensible in my opinion, but one should probably admit that these are likely the major causes of resegregation in the South as well. [Emphasis Khan’s — RD] The ProPublica piece itself highlights the importance of class as a driving dynamic, as the black underclass in particular is packed into apartheid schools. History is important, and it shadows us down into the present, but a fixation on racial nature of Southern society with roots in the 19th century misleads in terms of the dynamics driving the 21st century.

Here’s the ProPublica piece Khan refers to. It’s about how public schools in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, have largely resegregated. Excerpt:

Tuscaloosa’s schools today are not as starkly segregated as they were in 1954, the year the Supreme Court declared an end to separate and unequal education in America. No all-white schools exist anymore—the city’s white students generally attend schools with significant numbers of black students. But while segregation as it is practiced today may be different than it was 60 years ago, it is no less pernicious: in Tuscaloosa and elsewhere, it involves the removal and isolation of poor black and Latino students, in particular, from everyone else. In Tuscaloosa today, nearly one in three black students attends a school that looks as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened.

Tuscaloosa’s school resegregation—among the most extensive in the country—is a story of city financial interests, secret meetings, and angry public votes. It is a story shaped by racial politics and a consuming fear of white flight. It was facilitated, to some extent, by the city’s black elites.

Tuscaloosa Judge John England, one of the city’s most prominent black leaders, was among these elites:

So England and a handful of others made a Faustian bargain. In exchange for their support for building new schools in the whitest part of town, he said, white leaders promised to build some state-of-the-art schools in Tuscaloosa’s West End, providing local development to a part of town with little more than factories and dollar stores. “They kept their word to build schools on this side, we kept ours,” England said. “White folks got your schools. Black folks, you got yours.”

England knew this arrangement meant consigning hundreds of black students to segregated schools. And he never disputed that integration had brought real academic benefits. But he saw few options and had also grown nostalgic about his own years in Jim Crow schools. “I would put the education I got against anyone’s,” he said. “The answer cannot be ‘The only way to get good schools is to have white people in them.’ ”

If you read on in the long story, it becomes clear that the reporter has decided that there’s just no way to explain this resegregation except in terms of white racism. The idea of culture doesn’t seem to cross her mind. One of the figures in her story is Melissa Dent, 45, a black woman who was one of the first to go through Tuscaloosa’s desegregated high schools. She went on to the University of Alabama, the first in her family to go to college. But she got pregnant in college and dropped out to have the baby, returning four years later and earning her degree in 1995. She’s now a single mother of four, working in a factory. Her daughter, D’Leisha, is also a main figure in the story. She goes to her mom’s old high school, which is now heavily black. She’s her class president, but she’s taken the ACT four or five times, and can’t come remotely close to achieving the minimal score to get into the University of Alabama.

Why not? Is it because D’Leisha’s just not as smart as her mom? Maybe. Is it because the school is a worse place, and doesn’t prepare its students as well as it did in her mom’s day? Maybe. Might it have something to do with the fact that she is one of four children living with a single mother, and that kids who grow up in single-parent homes, in conditions of economic stress, are far more likely to do poorly in school, and to be undisciplined. Note well that when income levels are adjusted, much of the disparity between kids from single-parent and two-parent families disappears — suggesting that it’s not just single parenthood, but also poverty, that affects academic achievement negatively.

According to Census data, over 36 percent of the households in Tuscaloosa are headed by single parents (4 percent of that number are male-headed households). According to the same data, in recent years, 70.6 of births to single mothers in Tuscaloosa were to black moms. And more than half of those moms live under the poverty line.

Is it really so hard to figure that middle-class white and black parents who have a choice would prefer that their kids not go to school with a majority, or at least a plurality, of children whose cultural and economic background makes it more likely that the teachers are going to spend a lot more time having to explain basics, and enforce discipline? The point is simply that there are reasons for resegregation having to do with class and culture, not mere racism. Reading the ProPublica piece, it seems far more likely that middle class Tuscaloosans of all races don’t want their kids to go to school with the black underclass, because they believe that their own children will be less likely to get a good education in those schools.

But it’s so much easier to blame Southern white racism for all this. It always is, for our media.

Steve Sailer, in that impolitic way of his, offers a take on what’s going on that’s more honest than anything you’re likely to see in The New York Times or ProPublica. Excerpt:

The fundamental issue is that there is always a large black underclass that everybody treats as a hot potato. Controlling the boundaries of Appropriate Discourse is helpful in dumping this hot potato into somebody else’s lap without them having a vocabulary for explaining what you are up to.

Yep. To be perfectly clear, the South has a particular — and particularly awful — history with race, and no honest white Southerner can deny it. Slavery and segregation are rightly a source of shame. But come on, New York Times. Come on, ProPublica. Here’s the real message you send: everyone should divert their attention to the slavery-nostalgist juggernaut and the unreconstructed awfulness of the South, so we can avoid talking about the real issues, especially as they are present in the North, East, and West.

UPDATE: BrooklynBlueDog writes:

Rod, you’re right on. As my name suggests, I live in New York. But I do a lot of business in the deep South, and it always strikes me when I go there how much more easily and casually blacks and whites seem to interact with each other than they do — or should I say don’t — in New York. Obviously, here I see lots of black people on a regular basis, but periodically I ask myself whether I actually *know* any black people. I’m just not interacting with any on a regular basis; there are hardly any in my normal circles.

It’s also clear to me that this is a self-segregation issue, but really along class lines, which largely but not entirely overlap with racial ones. I don’t interact with a lot of black people because the people that I am interacting with most of the time are fairly affluent, highly educated professionals, and the blacks form only a small minority within that group. The black people I know are also highly educated professionals. And, I am not very likely to come into contact with working class whites, whose values and priorities and interests seem every bit as foreign to me as those of working class blacks. On the other hand, my business in the South requires me to interact with people who are mostly working class, and those groups tend to be more mixed. I interact with both more black people and more working class white people when I am doing business in the South than I ever do here in New York.

Where I live, “diversity” is like religion — the less people actually practice it in their lives, the more they talk about how important it is and the harder they try to force it on others. They’re all very busy removing the specks from each other’s eyes, blind to the planks in their own eyes. Having the South to kick around is a great way for people around here to think of themselves as holier-than-thou on issues of race. And, believe me, they would never admit that the real root cause of their segregated lives is class.

The problem with legal segregation was that it prevented people of different races who *wanted* to be together from doing so freely. But when people naturally organize their lives to be around others who are like them and share their interests, they should not feel or be made to feel guilty about it. But try telling that to folks around here.

UPDATE.2: Edward Hamilton writes:

Last month saw the release of a report on segregation in New York City public schools. Quoting from the NY Post: ‘“In the 30 years I have been researching schools, New York state has consistently been one of the most segregated states in the nation — no Southern state comes close to New York,” said UCLA Civil Rights Project co-director Gary Orfield.’

This inclines me to doubt that nostalgia for Confederate-era racial injustices exerts any particularly strong share of causal control over the modern school segregation problem. Just as the prevalence of divorce in the Bible Belt is a special source of shame for Christian conservatives, I also think that educational inequalities should be a similar source of shame for urban elites. Talking about history sensibly instead of poorly might be a necessary component of escaping its long shadow, but it is surely far from a sufficient one.



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