Racism on Both Sides of the Mason-Dixon Line

by Michael Sean Winters

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Ever since the killing of nine African-Americans at Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, South Carolina, the nation has been focused on removing the symbols of the Confederacy. It is a good thing that the Confederate battle flag was taken down from the grounds of the Capitol in South Carolina, but that is not enough to heal the nation’s racial tensions. There was no Confederate battle flag flying in West Baltimore where riots broke out earlier this year, nor in Chicago where eleven African-Americans were slain in violence over the 4th of July weekend.

Symbolism is important and, regrettably, some of the debate in recent weeks has been foolish. Young people objected to a guitar in a store because it was festooned, they thought, with the Confederate battle flag. In fact, it was the Union Jack. (Maybe the Irish should object.) My wonderful Dad clips articles in the local papers in Connecticut and send them to me. Turns out there is an effort there to re-name the state Democratic Party’s major fundraiser, the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner. It is true that both Jefferson and Jackson were slaveholders. It is also true that they, in their different ways, laid the seeds for an understanding of liberty in the national consciousness that eventually, and at huge cost, forced the nation to confront slavery and end it. There is a difference between pulling down a noxious symbol and re-writing history.

Any anachronistic reading of history is suspect per se. Think of the debate about Fr. Serra’s forthcoming canonization. It is true that we would not pursue his methods of evangelization today and, as Pope Francis said in Bolivia, the Church committed sins in its effort to spread the Gospel. But, before we get on our high horse and stand in judgment of Serra – or Jefferson – neither man dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, just as neither man exploited the earth as we do daily. The Connecticut Democrats have more important things to do than rename their dinner.

America’s racial problems are not confined to Dixie and they are not merely symbolic. Those problems exist on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line and they are structural.

This past Sunday, the Washington Post’s Outlook section has a must-read commentary by Professor Thomas Sugrue of New York University that pointed out the many ways racism thrives in the north. Twenty of the twenty-five most racially segregated cities are in the north, not the south. Between 1945 and 1965, there were more than 200 attacks on black homeowners moving into Detroit. A recent investigation by the fair Housing Alliance showed than in 87% of cases, real estate agents directed their customers to neighborhoods dominated by the clients’ own race.

The racism of housing policy spills over into other areas of life. New York is the state with the highest percentage of black students who attend schools with no whites, a staggering 64.6%. Only two of the other ten states with the highest rates of racial segregation in schools are in the south. And, a Politico story this morning highlights the ways that even transportation funding in Wisconsin has been deployed to satisfy the commuting needs of affluent white suburbanites at the expense of basic repairs of roads in inner city, largely African-American neighborhoods.

Policies can help address these inequities, and the racism that feeds them, to be sure. Last month’s Supreme Court decision, upholding a person’s right to sue when there is a pervasive pattern of discrimination, and not only when there is an overt act of discrimination, is a help. Certainly, Gov. Scott Walker should be questioned by the media about his state’s preference for large transportation projects that lessen the commuting times of white suburbanites over basic maintenance of roads and public transportation – and public schools! – in Wisconsin’s transportation allocations. Policies should be devised that make it harder to behave like a racist, not easier.

The other day, I responded to Elizabeth Scalia’s article in which she complained about the pope scolding the more affluent and seemed not to grasp the structural economic injustices the pope complains about. As I noted, we need both structural and personal commitments to overcome problems like economic inequality and racism. Take this example to see how the structural and the personal intertwine. If you purchase a home in an all-white neighborhood, the property value of that home, usually a person’s largest investment, will start to decline if the neighborhood begins welcoming non-whites. That is a sad fact, but it is a fact. The personal good of the homeowner (her investment) is in tension with the common good (ending racial segregation). Many governments now require developers to include mixed-income development in their projects, and this should be required at all times and in all locations, even when the largely white, largely northern homeowners resist this. And, as poverty increasingly afflicts many whites in Rust Belt cities and towns, creating a different set of problems, at the very least we can craft policies that build solidarity between those who are falling behind no matter what race they are. Everyone needs a common good approach to policies on housing, education and transportation.

We will still need heroes. I am lucky to know two of them, my late Mom and my Dad. My mom taught in an inner city school most of her life. Her fourth grade classroom had many students who were being mainstreamed from bilingual education classes. My Mom was not proficient in Spanish, so the kids had to help each other with any lingering linguistic challenges. But, she loved her Puerto Rican kids, maybe even more than their white counterparts. She and my Dad had lived in Puerto Rico when they were first married so when she looked at those kids, she was not scared, she had a great love for their culture and history, and she made them feel special and welcome. When she died, the racial mix at her wake and funeral was something to behold, and something to celebrate. Love goes a long way. 

My Dad dabbled in real estate for a time. I remember when he sold the first house in our small town of 1,200 people to a black family. Someone blew up their mail box. We got hate mail and nasty phone calls. But, my parents brought the family to town events, sat with them during the Memorial Day parade, got them involved in our community theater. My parents sat us down at the kitchen table and explained what a horrible thing bigotry is. In the event, the family moved out of our town, but not because of racial animus. It turns out the Mom was part Native American and she belonged to the tribe that soon owned the largest casino in the country and she could afford nicer digs than my dad had sold them!

Just as America has work to do in rebuilding a politics of the common good in regard to economic inequality, we also have work to do in crafting a polity that respects the common good in racial relations. Demographics will help: The number of interracial marriages continues to increase, especially among Latinos, the fast growing demographic group that is reshaping America, and the Catholic Church, in many ways, all of them to the better.

I am glad the Confederate flag is now in a museum where it belongs. We should not celebrate past ugliness, but we also should not re-write our history. More importantly, we should see what we can do now to confront the personal and structural supports that keep racism and poverty and environmental degradation alive in our own time. This, ultimately, is what the Holy Father is calling us to do. In our highly polarized society, it won’t be easy, but the alternative is worst, a country beset by growing inequality, a polity devoid of concern for the common good, and a culture that values narcissism more than solidarity. Last night I got an email from a friend which contained these wise words:  “Solidarity is a sneaky thing.  Either you embrace it now, or it comes back and enforces itself later.” Amen.



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