Tuesday, May 1, 2012

It's Complicated

Greenwood, Mississippi is still largely segregated.  Blacks live on the south side of the river and whites live north of it.  More and more blacks are moving to the white side of town, while many of the whites are moving out of town altogether.  The public schools in Greenwood are about 98% black because most of the white kids go to private schools.

When I went to Greenwood this past summer I expected to feel tension between myself and the white residents I would meet there.  Part of my goal in going was to confront and maybe even deconstruct "the racist".

What happened when I went to Greenwood surprised me and left me feeling conflicted.  Time and time again the white people from Greenwood including those I met in passing, those I interviewed, and those who helped with research wanted nothing less than an opportunity to embrace me.  Some of them felt intense warmth towards me because they had so dearly loved Booker Wright.  Others seemed to be trying to grasp at yet one more opportunity to clean up the image of the archetypal white Southerner.

The time I spent with them has left me in a strange position.  I sometimes find myself defending the white Southerner, trying to free them from the guilt that seems to be passed from generation to generation like an unwanted family heirloom.

I grew up in California and like a lot of people who haven't spent significant amounts of time in the South, the idea that some towns may still be segregated seems like absolute nonsense to me.  I know that most major cities have "bad" parts of town where it's not uncommon for economically depressed people of color to live. That's not what's going on in Greenwood.  Regardless of economics, whites and blacks live mostly apart.

From an outsiders vantage point it appears that whites and blacks are in a simple and seemingly sophomoric stand off that just needs to be done away with.  The idea that a town could have a white side and a black side in 2012 is deplorable to me.

But what if it was you?  Would you take your kids with ivory white skin and clear blue eyes and move them to the black side of town where the roads are so torn up they look like they haven't been serviced in years?  Would you move your kids to a school district in which many of the high school students struggle to read at a second grade level?  Would you move your family to the side of town where most of your city's crimes are committed?

Maybe you would.  I don't know if I could do it.

Many people feel called to change the world in some small way.  They might feed the homeless, take in foster care children, champion causes like autism or childhood obesity.  Clearly many Southerners, white and black, have not chosen to make unifying the races a central theme of their lives.  Does that make them bad people?  Does that make them racists?

If a white person lives in the South does that automatically mean that they need to make solving the race conundrum their sole aim?  Maybe the answer is yes. Maybe being white and Southern automatically means that one is shackled with that responsibility like it or not.  Either they work and work for racial unity or they are held responsible for racial disunity.

I wrestle with wondering whether or not this is fair.  But I also think that if everyone turns a blind eye to the problems in their own communities then the world will never progress.  In the 1960's many whites in Greenwood lived as though they were oblivious to the civil rights movement happening around them.  Booker Wright's words brought the harsh reality of it home to them.  He made them so uncomfortable that they could no longer deny just how unhappy their blacks were.

Maybe that's why so many of the whites are moving out of Greenwood.  Maybe they don't know how to fix the problem, but they also don't want to be reminded of it any longer.

In the midst of this confusing and frustrating situation there is hope.  I met many white Mississippians who are trying to do all that they can to bring Greenwood back together one conversation at a time.


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