Word of the Week

Race, the South and Segregation

I was raised in the South. I went to college in Alabama. I attended seminary in North Carolina. I learned to eat fried chicken at church potlucks and hymn sings. I was given pearls for my high school graduation. I studied BBQ in its various forms in my Southern History class in college.  I learned "cola" as "Coke" for it was the only soft drink that you ever drank. I was as Southern as you come . . . accent included.

The pace of life, the readiness of religious opportunities, and the cheap cost of living make the southern part of the United States a wonderful place to grow up and to settle down. I always thought I would attend seminary and return to Alabama to live for the rest of my life.

But, not until I left the South via my first job posting in Maryland (and I know several of you would argue that Maryland is still the South, but for argument sake it isn't Mississippi), did I begin to realize the deep tensions remaining in this part of the country: how broken this region still is over race in more ways than just having "bad sides of town" and "low-income schools." Racial stereotypes are woven in how everyone seems to relate to one another. And, I knew that the life I wanted for myself-- rich in diversity-- would be easier to establish in an area of the country like Washington DC.

How easy I forget, though, how spoiled I have become until I make journeys down south to catch up with friends and family from time to time.  Not that the Mid-Atlantic region is perfect, by any means, but it is easier to make friends here of different cultures, races, and traditions as if it is no big deal. Easily I can begin to think that race and nationality are descriptors that just don't apply anymore. Yet, last week, I learned again in Georgia and Tennessee, that our DC life is not the norm.

When folks are described in every day conversation it seems that no one is described without referring to the color of their skin.

When folks of a different color of skin are mentioned, there is a change in facial expression, body language and tone of voice when speaking of this person.

Certain activities are associated with racial groups. I heard it said in the line in at the movie theater by a Caucasian child talking to her Caucasian mother, "I don't want to see that movie. It's a black person film."  I heard it said, "That mall is so ghetto. If you drive by that part of town keep your doors locked."

In all of this, I was sobered to think about the world view of  my nieces and nephews have and will continue to have are based on unfair biases. Thinking that ALL persons of certain racial groups are somehow less than them because their skin is darker.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the real issue in rural southern USA is not race, but what race has meant for the lack of educational and economic opportunities. And, these lack of opportunities continue to oppress.

While interacting with several of Kevin's former high school classmates at his reunion party, I realized that the persons from his class who had been "more successful" in moving away to bigger cities, receiving high education, and maintaining well-paid jobs were Caucasian. I don't think that this is because color of skin has anything to do with intelligence, but  because of how environmental factors have diminished opportunities for those with darker skin, Hispanic and African-American alike. And, as a result of these lack of educational and economic opportunities, social tensions were created in an multi-racial gathering of this particular party i.e. the African-American persons had more things in common to talk to one another about not because of their "blackness" but because of their type of jobs, housing and life ambitions.

And so at this particular party, the social dynamics were less about desire to get to know someone who shared different physical features from you (because this didn't seem to be the issue)  and more about not having anything to talk about with someone who was from a different racial group.  Segregation occurred in more complex ways than first observed.

Do you see how this cycle of racism lives? It overwhelms and frightens me.  And, I understand how easily these social patterns of relating to one another will continue and continue for a very long time unless the church both in the South and in other parts of the country, among other social justice groups, seek to address the disparity of this issue right on. Saying, it is not ok to identify your neighbor on the bus, in the grocery store, or who fixes your tv, by their race. It's just not ok, ever. And, it is not ok for my child to go to school with books that are new and your child not to simply because of the part of town in which they live. It's not ok for the church to sit on the sidelines and do nothing to speak of the segregation race still seeks to cause.

Of course it is easier to speak of the disparities of lifestyle by race, saying, "It's what the Mexicans do" or "It's where the black people hang out" or "Our town is so white" but really in the end, it's not about race as much as it about what life has offered us. This fact, I believe needs to be more clearly understood.

I for, one, was glad to be back on my street of diversity a couple of days ago, to be in conversations where the fact that a family is Indian or Asian or whatever doesn't really matter. But, I came back with eyes open to new prayers I have for the great human family and the children who grow up not being taught by their parents, teachers and pastors any better. Praying as Jesus did on the night before his death: "Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name-- so that they may be one as I am one with you."