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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Idyllic Towns and Absurd Stigmas

I came across a rerun of the Andy Griffith show the other day, set in idyllic Mayberry, NC where nary a word about race relations was ever spoken, despite its deep south setting. Meanwhile over on another channel was a rerun of Good Times, set in the stigma-laden housing projects of Chicago where black people hustled to survive, but few whites were seen in the heart of this black community. Are communities better or worse off in terms of race relations than these two divergent examples suggest?

There have been a lot of racial tensions in my community which has a long history of being racially divided, but the polite culture here tries to overlook any overt racism. Unfortunately, the divisions have accelerated this year and the hounds of bigotry have been unleashed. I have been shocked at the level of vitriol expressed in local blogs and comments on news articles. Politeness has gone out the window and many whites feel compelled to "call a spade a spade" in no uncertain terms. It has become quite uncomfortable and I wonder if this is just occurring in my town or part of a general elevation in urban racial rancor.

I decided to look at news accounts around the country on race relations. I found that my community is not alone in the division over race and that some cities are experiencing extremely hostile incidents of race divisions. School desegregation became especially contentious in St. Petersburg, FL where neighborhood schools would now mirror segregated communities. A small town in PA experienced some nasty racial conflicts at a local school that spilled over to the city's general population. Milwaukee, San Diego, Fort Worth, Richmond, VA, Kansas City, MO, Portland, Seattle, Memphis, and Philadelphia all had multiple articles on school and/or employment conflicts that stemmed from racial divides. Racism seems to be alive and well in the USA.

Why is it that tensions escalate so rapidly when race is involved? It becomes a matter of life and death the way white people approach it. A columnist in Kansas City wrote about racial tensions in that city and the level of scathing criticism of this black columnist from white readers was astonishing. It amounted to a written lynching. Letters to the editor in St. Pete were edgy over the needs of kids to go to schools in their neighborhood and the liberal, social agenda of integrating schools. Writers made the point that if people don't want to live together, the "state" should not force kids to go to school together. The secondary point was the need for kids to be able to go to school in their neighborhood. Apparently the integrated schools look like "Good Times" while white communities are "Mayberry." Sorry folks, you can't have it both ways.

This is a common fallacy that white folks make as they try to deal with racial issues. Their white neighborhood is always portrayed as a safe haven where Sheriff Griffith and Deputy Fife stroll by with a kind word. The city council, school board, schools, and inner-city neighborhoods are portrayed as the squalid projects of "Good Times" where everyone is a hustler or uneducated and no one is up to snuff. This is the default view of a white community that sees itself as the quintessential representative of the way people want to live. Wouldn't everyone want to live in Mayberry? And if you are not just like us, then you should be vilified for not living up to our standards. We deride your "Good Times."

What we white folks don't see is that Deputy Fife is out on the back roads intimidating the blacks to keep on their side of town so that the streets are safe for Aunt Bee. The other things we don't see are the good families, hard working, and ethical people who live in the 'hood. While we prefer to see only crime and gangs and unemployed men with women on welfare, the reality is much different. We choose to see what we want to see. Our neighborhoods are idyllic while black neighborhoods are stigmatized. It's about as silly as saying that middle east terrorists are jealous of us so that's why they flew into the World Trade buildings.

City councils, school boards, chambers of commerce, and other bastions of white control need to wake up to their contribution to the fear and loathing that defines race relations in our cities today. Ease up on the idyllic and lighten up on the stigmas. Maybe that's how we can start to get along.

1 comment:

KC Sponge said...

I grew up in Apopka, FL - 10 miles away from Zora Neale Hurston's Eatonville - and home to the grand wizard of the KKK. We had quadrants of the city that still exist today - the railroad tracks that separated the whites and blacks, the man-made wall that separated the rich nursery owners' homes from the migrant neighborhoods that housed their workers. But we all went to the same high school - all learned from the same teachers and cheered at the same football games. We all had different lives, but existed in a community, had a common bond. That's what is possible in a small suburban town - I don't see why it's not possible here. I don't get why one part of town is idealized as a good place to live while others are not - fear immobilizes our city, it immobilizes our lives and our connections to people. We keep to what we know, and the people we know - and think because this is what we choose, everyone would - and should - do the same. 'If only they could . . . ' is the downfall to our society. Not everyone wants to live in my neighborhood, so I'm not going to put my efforts towards trying to make everyone's house look like mine - but I am going to make an effort to be a part of every part of the city, so that one day I can truly call it my own.