Racism, regionalism, the South, and Macalester

By Amanda Solberg

I am racist, and not because I’m from the South.

I am racist because I am a white American. I am racist the same way that I am a capitalist. Every time I go to the convenience store for late night coffee, every time I buy a plane ticket, every time I buy alcohol, every time I buy anything, I contribute to and become a member of the market economy that we are all a part of if we consume anything. To my friends, to myself, to my family, I might seem like a socialist; I might say I’m a socialist and really despise some of the “negative externalities” of our economic system, but I am still effectively a capitalist and I have been all my life.
Regardless of how I feel about race in my own mind, how I interact with individuals in my own life, or how po-mo “color blind” I think I am, I belong to a system that is still in many ways structurally racist, and I cannot escape it by ignoring it. Just a few of these racist structures that exist right now: racism based on dialect (dialects have consistent, repetitive patterns that do not require any less sophistication than each other; a belief that they do is part of the hegemony), economic racism that comes along with our belief in inherited wealth, racism within the government (school funding and districts), white flight (the movement of white individuals out of neighborhoods with a large proportion of people of color), and individuals who still believe they are superior to others based on racial differences. Because of this, all of us—all white Americans who do not leave the system—are racist. (For those of us/you who appreciate the relative merits of capitalism and/or are working to get rid of its negative externalities, I don’t mean to equate racism with capitalism. Capitalism is only as ethical as its members and actors.)
Historically, racism and the South have been thought of as mutually exclusive by the “non-South,” or the North, which has in turn—somewhat naively—historically been thought of as egalitarian, harmonious, affluent, etc.—as, essentially, “the real America.” At least since 1865, the South has been largely disassociated from the rest of America by “Americans” (non-southern Americans) who saw slavery, and later segregation and racial brutality, as something confined to the South, something that does not belong in the history of the non-South, refusing to realize their own connections to slavery and racism. More recently, the tendency toward conservatism across the nation has been labeled by many as “Southernization,” with maps of the 2004 election results labeled “The South Has Risen” (uh, Montana?).

There are a couple of issues at hand with this mindset. According to the 2000 census, 12.9% of Americans self reported as black or African American. Of these people, 54% live in the South. Mississippi’s population was 35.6% black. Alabama’s population was 25.3% black. Arkansas’s population was 15.9% black. Florida’s population was 13.6% black. Louisiana’s population was 30.8% black. Georgia’s population was 27% black. North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia each also had numbers well above the national average. In the 1990s the southern Black population grew by 3.6 million people. Also according to the 2000 census, segregation in the metropolitan South declined 10 percent faster than elsewhere in nation and eight of the nation’s ten least segregated metropolitan areas were located in the South. From James C. Cobb’s book Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity: “the only successful Democratic presidential candidates since 1964 were white Southerners who had received overwhelming support from black voters.” (Those would be Carter and Clinton).

To many black southerners, the ability to come back (if they left) or stay and live in the South in peace and as equals was a goal since the beginning; the reason they left or considered leaving was oppression and violence, not the place itself or the place they believed that it could be. Today the South is just as much a black Southerner’s home as it ever is or will be my home. There has been a trend to label white people who live in the South as “Southern” and black people who live in the South “black,” when in fact both groups self identify in strong percentages as Southerners. This tendency marginalizes (ironically) the strong presence of African Americans who have claimed the South as their home. In other words, to talk about the South disdainfully and not include black Southerners marginalizes this group of people even further.
Yet racism across the country is labeled “Southern,” along with the infiltration of NASCAR and other “Southern” vices, while Southerners have not been on any active mission to culturally infiltrate the nation. If these “vices” are so exportable, then they are in fact not Southern, or distinct to this region (which would be the non-regionalists’ definition of a region), but parts of an America that have long been displaced unto some partly imagined place: the South.
Even at Macalester racism is often displaced from the self unto somewhere else, somewhere imagined to be less progressive—sometimes the South. As all Americans or people with American experiences should know, racism and the South or other “less progressive” regions have never been mutually exclusive. We cannot continue to displace or ignore our racism if we are going to do anything to try to remove the structures that oppress some and place others as racist. The first step in confronting racism (or any other hegemonic system) is to identify where it exists and more importantly how we are a part of it. To not realize how we are a part of it and not try to confront it is to be complicit in it. Most white people in America never have to confront their skin color or identify with their whiteness. Many other Americans do have to confront their race, their skin color, every day, regardless of where they live, and do not have the privilege of ignoring it. This in and of itself is a marker of persistent racism. This ability to ignore, the ability to be completely an individual, is a position of privilege, and by recognizing that we have this we can move one step closer to making it possible for everyone.