Is the South Still Prejudiced?
A Cartersville native examines modern day race relations in the region.
Earlier this summer, Kristy Spivey received a phone call informing her that the Kingston home she recently purchased had been vandalized. When Spivey, an African-American woman, surveyed the property damage, she was shocked and dismayed to find the letters “KKK” spray painted on her garage door.
You don’t have to be a well-versed historian to recognize the state’s fluctuating track record with racial intolerance. The same environment that produced Martin Luther King Jr. also produced Lester Maddox, and even more paradoxically, Wayne Williams and Hosea Williams; simultaneously, contradictorily, we are a culture with serious, conflicting attitudes toward race relations.
The question is not, nor has it ever really been, whether or not Georgian society is “racist.” Racism is perhaps the most overused and misappropriated concept currently channeling through the American lexicon—by its very definition, “racism” is an outmoded, 19th Century pseudo-science that all but the most fervent of agitators (your David Dukes and the like) have discarded as archaic. The proper term for our cultural ill would be prejudice—the prejudgment of people based on irrational or unfounded fears and misconceptions. Obviously, there is no denying that prejudice remains rampant throughout our culture to this very day.
Of course, things are not as physically heated as they were 50 years ago. Widespread prejudice is no longer seen as “tolerable,” and it’s certainly not accepted in public venues by any means. Although police clashes and cross burnings may not be as prevalent now as they were half a century ago, that same sentiment lingers in the air, the scent of a long-burning fire that while quelled, is anything but icy embers.
Prejudice exists, although in a more furtive form than it was five decades prior. Blacks and whites commingle in school, and work and interact in public on a daily basis, but culturally, they remain segregated. They go to different churches, they eat at different restaurants and they attend different concerts. Sure, there’s some crossover, but by and large, we remain a culture that’s equal but separate: same school, different lunch tables, same job, different neighborhoods.
The hardship Spivey encountered is an increasing rarity in today’s south; while there are some that like to drag around their prejudicial dispositions publicly, a majority of modern discrimination occurs behind closed doors. Prejudicial speech is more encoded than it was even 20 years ago; for every on-the-nose faux pas Don Imus and Rush Limbaugh make about “nappy-headed” basketball players and “bi-racial cookies” named after President Barack Obama, there are thousands more that are uttered in secrecy and passed around in well-guarded, forwarded emails. Our society has clearly determined that there’s no place for prejudice in public affairs; unfortunately, that’s not exactly a policy we hold in place for our private affairs, too.
We may say that we believe all men are created equal, but at the same time, some of us experience incredible unease fathoming our children marrying outside their race. We may say that we believe in the ideals of brotherly love, but at the same time, we feel wary traveling to certain neighborhoods and locales. We may say that we consider unrepentant race-baiters and bigots deplorable, but we may tell a tasteless joke at a party or laugh when we receive an email mocking or stereotyping people of a different ethnicity. We convince ourselves that such convictions and acts don’t make us prejudiced; in fact, one of our greatest social fears is that our utterances and behaviors behind closed doors gets leaked to the waiting world.
In other words, we’re hypocrites. We advocate and embrace a set of ideals when others are looking and sully and discard those ideals when we’re among like-skinned colleagues. That’s not to say that prejudice is an ingrained part of the southern experience as much as it is a general observation about American life; lest history be ignored, don’t pretend that the southeast region is the only part of the nation that’s had troubles dealing with race relations.
Prejudice, at least in the modern sense of the word, is dying out. With an ever-changing population, it simply has to: the United States is no longer a hegemony of empowered whites, and as such, the prejudices of the past will, and are, going to be exorcised as history continues. Racial prejudice, and most definitely its more radical incarnations, is something that can only exist under certain conditionals, and those conditionals are growing weaker and weaker each passing day in America.
There’s no excuse for the kind of suffering Kristy Spivey went through. Such behavior is regressive not only socially, but detrimental in terms of our communal knowledge and civility. It’s irrational, outdated and wholly inexcusable, an unnecessary throwback to our ugliest and most simple-minded natures. Perhaps the work of uneducated or misinformed malcontents, the crude scrawling found on that garage door in Kingston is a reminder of both our past and our future as a culture; that the ghosts of our pasts have yet to fully vanish, and that one day, we’re destined to bury such skeletons in the Georgia clay for good.