Folks in Tulia, Texas breathed a collective sigh of relief when the trophy for “most racist town in America” passed to Jena, Louisiana.
The hardware is back in Texas.
Paris, a community of 25,000 in Deep East Texas, now bears the distinction of being America’s most racist municipality.
No organization has sponsored the award, of course, and there has been no formal awards ceremony. Paris gets the trophy because reporters from prominent media outlets are raising embarrassing questions. When this happens, folks on mainstreet slam down their coffee mugs and scream, “#%*!!!+$$# it all anyway, why is everybody saying we’re the most racist town in America?”
When that happens, you get the trophy. These days, it’s happening a lot in Paris, Texas.
Does the shoe fit?Of course not. It’s silly to tar a single community as a singular throwback to Jim Crow America. As much as justice advocates love to toss around phrases like “modern day lynching”, we aren’t dealing with old-style racial hatred anymore.
In their excellent study, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith argue that America is a “racialized society.”
In the post-Civil Rights United States, the racialized society is one in which intermarriage rates are low, residential separation and socioeconomic inequality are the norm, our definitions of personal identity and our choices of intimate associations reveal racial distinctiveness, and where we are never unaware of the race of a person with whom we interact. In short, and this is its unchanging essence, a racialized society is a society wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships. A racialized society can also be said to be [and here they quote Eduardo Bonilla-Silva] “a society that allocates differential economic, political, social, and even psychological rewards to groups along racial lines; lines that are socially constructed.”
The brand of racism afoot in a racialized society is informal, often invisible and generally subtle, but it is wrapped up with even the tiniest details of life. Emerson and Smith point out that physical characteristics have social meaning.
On meeting someone for the first time, Americans often assume that a white person is middle class or higher. They also assume that a black person or an American Indian is lower class. They may or may not be correct in their assumption, but race is socially constructed at these points because selected physical characteristics are associated with selected social characteristics.
People of color living in our racialized society are subjected to a constant stream of derrogatory hints, insinuations and humiliations to which white Americans are typically oblivious. Racism in modern day America is systemic or structural, woven into the warp and woof of the institutions and existential minutiae of everyday life.
In Tulia, the local newspaper announced that, due to a big drug bust, the city streets had been “cleared of garbage”. The “known drug dealers” arrested in the sting were a “cancer on the community” that could only be cured by “a little chemotherapy behind bars.”
The man who wrote these words was a relative newcomer to Tulia. Glancing down the list of arestees I doubt he recognized any more of the names than I did. But, at the invitation of Sheriff Larry Stewart, the editor had seen the defendants hauled into the county jail in their underwear, still half-asleep and with their hair unbrushed. He simply took it for granted that all 46 of them were raking in the big bucks selling dope to school children. We all know how “those people” are!
In Jena, the six black students accused of assaulting a white student were identified in the local newspaper as kin to the dangerous thugs who, it was commonly believed at the time, had terrorized the good people of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. It was later revealed that the horror stories about the denizens of Lower Ninth Ward New Orleans were distored and grossly exaggerated. It didn’t matter. Innocent, isolated Jena, readers were told, had been infested with a big-city (read “black”) infestation.
That’s socially constructed racism. That’s what happens in a racialized society.
You can see a similar process at work in Paris, Texas. Lamar County Judge Chuck Superville shrugs off accusations that he or any other public official in Paris has racist motivations. In a sense, Superville is probably right. We aren’t dealing with the kind of old-style racial hatred you see in pictures of white residents spitting on the black Little Rock students who attempting to enter Central High School in 1957.
Chuck Superville isn’t Bull Conner.
In conversation with Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune, Superville explained why so many black folks are upset in his community.
I think the black community in this town is suffering a great deal from poverty, broken homes, drugs. Because a larger percentage of the black population is caught up in that, in their anguish they are perceiving they are the victims of discrimination. But white people are not the enemy. Poverty, illiteracy, drugs, absentee fathers-that’s the enemy. That’s not racism. That’s the breakdown of a community.”
In an email to Friends of Justice, Paris resident Brenda Cherry claims that Mr. Superville’s critique of the black community won’t cut it.
If most of the blacks are illiterate, that would mean theres an enormous problem in the schools since most blacks graduate in Paris. Drugs are an enormous problem in Paris but the problem is within the white community just as much as it is the black community and I haven’t seen a single public official try to come up with solutions to address that problem other than giving the black offenders 40 to life.
Notice the difference in approach. Mr. Superville points at individuals and says they need to shape up; Ms. Cherry points to a deep-seated systemic problem affecting both white and black Parisians.
This is typical of the racial perception gap in America. When the subject turns to race, white people point at discrete individuals while black people discuss structural or systemic issues. The perception gap is rooted in radically different life experience.
This difference in approach makes constructive conversation difficult even in a civic forum moderated by the highly trained Department of Justice officials. It sometimes seems as if black and white residents are speaking different languages.
True, some black Parisians are uncomfortable with the strident rhetoric used by activists from out of town. They don’t like to see their community derided by outsiders with no first-hand understanding of the community and its problems. You can easily find black residents willing to echo Chuck Superville’s rant about absentee fathers, welfare mothers and crack babies.
I witnessed the same sort of moderating talk from black residents in Tulia and Jena. Inevitably, however, when the cameras stopped rolling and the reporters stopped scribbling these same people would assure me that white folks, however well meaning, just didn’t understand what’s going on. I didn’t have to ask why they didn’t say that to the media–you go along to get along, especially in small towns.
How much does it help to sit people down in places like Tulia, Jena and Paris and try to talk things through?
I have recently been in email conversation with Magdalena Wojcieszak, a Polish graduate student at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research suggests that in polarized situations where disputants on both sides hold strong ideological convictions, moderated face-to-face communication often hardens positions on both sides.
This is particularly true when people live in highly isolated and ideologically segregated communities (internet chat groups for instance) in which they are bombarded with opinions and arguments that reinforce and validate what they already believe. Such people, Ms. Wojcieszak says, tend to believe that society at large shares their outlook and this belief makes people even less willing to entertain opposing arguments.
Is this what we are seeing in Paris? When Chuck Superville waxes eloquent on the subject of black pathology he comes off sounding like a racist rube. I have seen the same melodrama unfold in Tulia and Jena. Small town people are especially vulnerable to this kind of stereotyping because, surrounded by people who talk this way, they don’t realize how out of touch and insensitive they sound.
The problem is exacerbated by the virtual de facto segregation in American religion.
Eric Holder, our freshly-minted Attorney General, addressed America’s racial divide in a candid speech earlier today.
“If we are to make progress in this area, we must feel comfortable enough with one another and tolerant enough of each other to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us,” Holder told hundreds of Justice employees, suggesting that, while blacks and whites are integrated in many quarters, they still are segregated in their free time in “race-protected cocoons.”
“Saturdays and Sundays, America in the year 2009 does not in some ways differ significantly from the country that existed almost 50 years ago. This is truly sad,” Holder said.
Holder will likely take a lot of flack over these remarks, but he is right. So long as white and black Americans continue to converse within “race-protected cocoons” we will be unable to communicate on sensitive subjects like race. Holder suggests we retreat into homogenous worlds because we are afraid.
He’s right about that too.
A still anonymous Paris resident was particularly outraged by Howard Witt’s allegedly gratuitous references to Lamar County’s tragic racial history. References to “lynching trees” and confederate monuments are out of place, the writer suggests. That was then and this is now.
More recently, James C. McKinley of the New York Times echoed Mr. Witt’s historical references.
Paris is an agricultural town 100 miles northeast of Dallas that was built on cotton and grain in a part of Texas that shares more with the Deep South than with the West. In 1850, there were 4,000 residents, a quarter of them slaves. A large monument to the Confederate dead stands outside the courthouse, a bronze soldier standing guard, while at the Paris Fairgrounds, no plaques mark the spot where thousands of white spectators watched as black men were burned alive or hanged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Are Witt, McKinley and Richard Abshire of the Dallas Morning News sensationalizing the story to sell papers, or are these harrowing historical references consistent with the “fair and balanced” canons of reporting?
Many white Americans sincerely believe that the Jim Crow era is dead and gone, vanished without a trace. Things have changed to be sure. In fact, the change has been dramatic. We have an African American in the White House.
And yet the shadows of civil war monuments and other symbolic celebrations of white supremacy stretch into this present hour. In “The cruel grip of history,” I mentioned a historical marker in Colfax, Louisiana celebrating the slaughter of defenseless black people and asked, “How are the people who worship across the street from a marker valorizing racial hatred affected? How can black residents of Grant Parish expect to obtain justice from a courthouse that celebrates the mass murder of African Americans?”
The same question could be asked in Paris.
We can’t outlive the past so we must come to terms with it. But how can that happen when even the most carefully monitored conversations can degenerate into mutual recrimination?
We need safe places where black and white people of good will can learn to talk to one another. Specifically, we need multiracial churches where black and white Christians can hammer out a common theology. That won’t solve the problem in the rest of society, of course, but it would be a beginning. Congregations dedicated to racial reconciliation and racial justice could serve as agents of reconciliation and understanding in places like Tulia, Jena and Paris.
Unfortunately, most criminal justice advocates appear content with “heightening the contradictions”. Knowing that accusations of racism will spark mirror-image denials, we succumb to the intoxicating rhythm of mutual villification. Opinions on both sides harden. The media writes its stories, and nothing changes.
But lets not blame the messenger here. I’m glad reporters show up when ideological opposites talk past one another and our words trail off into the ether. It doesn’t solve the problem, but it reminds us that a problem exists.
Where does Paris, Texas go from here?
If Tulia and Jena are anything to go by, little will be accomplished on the reconciliation front until the accused killers of Brandon McClelland have their day in court. With that issue resolved we will be in a much better position to address the deeper issues of race and religion that afflict America. Because make no mistake, this problem doesn’t belong to little towns like Tulia, Jena and Paris; this is America’s problem and we must grope our way to a distinctly American solution.
Alan Bean, Friends of Justice