Daily Archives: July 24, 2008

“We let em use our water fountains. What do they want?”

A “dust-up” on one of Kevin Hayden’s posts at a blog called The American Street in which the cluelessness and ferocity of right-wing intolerance was vividly in evidence, brought together a number of things I’ve been thinking about since I came South. Savannah is, in some ways, the epitome of the contradiction that still exists between what people say about racism and what they feel. There is a genuine sort of truce here where, at least on the surface, people accept each other at face value and try to deal with each other that way. But the truce doesn’t affect any emotions that may be roiling beneath that surface. They remain as strong as they ever were, often for good reason.

The title above wasn’t actually said by anyone but it encapsulates the feelings of an awful lot of white people I run into down here (not all, I hasten to say, and certainly not just in Savannah). There’s an impatience to “get over it” on the part of whites, who either don’t know or don’t accept that the realities of black life haven’t really changed since the 60’s in many significant respects. We feel the “injury” of forced integration and the social changes it has wrought in the last 40 years but have no real understanding of how superficial those changes have at the same time proved to be.

For example, yes, blacks don’t sit at the back of the bus any more and they drink at the same fountains and sit in the same section of the movie theaters with whites and own homes and hold down jobs and are elected mayor and so on. To whites, this is a Big Deal. Many of u8s experience such things as great sacrifices on our part and are justifiably proud of making them. We honestly don’t know what else we can do and tend to fall back on the usual Right-wing folderol, “personal responsibility”. The society has made blacks equal to whites so if blacks aren’t scaling the social ladders, acting with grace and wit, and educated to within an inch of their lives, it’s not our fault. They need to take responsibility for their own failures now.

The corollary, of course, is that if blacks aren’t easing into white society with grace and wit, it just goes to prove what we’ve been saying about them for years: that they’re inherently inferior. “What do you expect?” people whispered to me when I got here. “It’s a black town.”

But under the cover of the superficial changes, even a cursory acquaintance with the black community in Savannah turns up lots of anger, residual and current, because to a large degree despite the overwhelming changes of the past 40 years, not much has actually changed: they’re still the last hired and the first fired, they’re still constantly badgered by police even though the police force has lots of black faces in it, some of them in positions of authority, and they are still given very little room to move compared to whites. A white teen who gets caught selling drugs will be sent to rehab; a black teen likewise caught will go to prison.

Even in tolerant Savannah, it is hard to find a black family in which no member has been to jail. It is still a constant part of their lives. You hear the DWB stories (police stop them for the crime of Driving While Black), the endless stories of being hassled just because you’re walking in a white neighborhood, of being arrested for “trespassing” in the parking lot of the motel in which you’re staying, and so on. Whenever the brothers get together, a basic staple of their conversation is who went to jail, who got out, who was accused of what, whose lawyer was good, whose wasn’t, which cops treat you like a human and which treat you like an animal.

These are fundamental differences between the cultures, and the expectations of whites that letting blacks drink at the same water fountain is going to solve the whole problem is just a form of denial about how deep the problem really goes, and how hard it will be to fix it for real. Major portions of the society we accept will have to be reorganized, and though we’re doing that – slowly – we resent doing it at all and drag our feet, bitching and moaning about how we wouldn’t have to do it at all if those damn blacks would just accept “personal responsibility” for the way they live.

But that’s like saying that if those people from New Orleans had just accepted personal responsibility for Katrina the hiurricane never would have happened and they never would have lost their homes.

It isn’t a surprise that white people feel that way, but it came as a surprise to me to find out that many blacks feel that way, too. Especially the women for some reason. They can be as hard as nails with their own, as unwilling to forgive as the most bigoted white you can conjure up. Only three times in all the miles I was hitching was I picked up by a black man even though most of the cars that passed me were driven by blacks. Of all the people who’ve offered me money, only two were black. They were both women and they each gave me a dollar.

With the first (in Richmond), I had the feeling that she was making a sacrifice, that even a dollar was going to cause a problem to her week but she was going to do it anyway. I was grateful and even humbled by that sacrifice. The other (in Fayetteville) was slumming. She had just put over $40 worth of gas in her SUV and she wanted to feel, perhaps, that she wasn’t as selfish as she sometimes thought she was.

The point here is not that black people are stingier or meaner with money, gifts, or aid. The point is that they, too, have bought a certain amount of the “personal responsibility” swill that conservatives have been peddling for the past 30 years. Not as much as whites but quite a bit all the same. Bill Cosby started a furor several times in the last few years when he publicly took the standard conservative attitude – “I did it so if you can’t it’s because you’re lazy and undisciplined” – and beat his own people over the head with it. Of course they were angry. They’re used to hearing that crap from whites. It was an insult to hear it from one of their heroes.

But it does make plain the split in the black community between those angry because the discrimination never seems to end despite all the white promises (and now the incredibly frustrating white insistence that it has ended when it so clearly has not) and those who are angry because their friends and loved ones often seem to be taking the easy way out, proving to the whites that “they’re all like that” and similar cliches.

There’s nothing really new about this split. It has been there for generations but conservative propaganda has given it new life and force so that even blacks are asking themselves, “What’s wrong with us? Why haven’t we come further in the last 40 years since the civil rights movement than we have? Are they right? Are we just lazy, undisciplined, and dependant on government handouts?”

The poison is everywhere – both in the unrealistic expectations of whites that blacks ought to have become docile and obedient once segregation was technically over even though in many ways how they’re treated hasn’t changed much, and in blacks’ expectations for themselves that it must be their fault if they haven’t made more progress. It’s a game of Victim/Victim that has to be played out, I suppose, but it isn’t helping anybody.