The Self-Defeating South, Words Not Spoken: Racism as a Scar and Cancer

Born and raised in a very small rural town in upstate South Carolina, I have lived my entire 53 years in the South. Most of that life has been spent teaching, and a large span of that career was in the high school I attended, among children mostly just like me, where we explored literature.

A key text for me each year was William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” and if you are not from the South, and you want to come close to understanding the South, read the story carefully. The shocking revelation at the end of the story—behind the locked door, the pillow and the bed, the “iron-gray hair”—is as close as you can come to understanding the South if you are not from here. (If you want to make a unit of this project to examine the South, read also Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”)

We are a self-defeating people, we Southerners, a sort of ignorant pride, a blind faith in tradition and a steely determination to do as we damn well please. We’d rather cling to our ignorance (a long-standing tradition) than do the right thing—especially if someone else is telling us to do the right thing. The South, you see, is stuck in a perpetual arrested development, a fixed childhood/adolescence: We’re going to smoke, drink, and make out in our own car and there is nothing you can say or do to stop us.

That “we,” however, is the white South (both literally and its controlling psyche), and that is the problem. (One element of “A Rose for Emily” that is important here is the “we” narration of the town. “When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral,” it begins.)

So if you think 8 disturbing trends that reveal the South’s battered psyche—which asks, “So what is it that perpetuates decades of poverty in the Deep South?”—helps you understand the South, you need to consider carefully what is absent in the 8 trends:

1. Southern states have the most poor people….

2. Deep South states have no minimum wage….

3. Deep South has lowest economic mobility….

4. South has lowest per capita spending [b]y state government….

5. Forget about decent preventative healthcare….

6. One result: people self-medicate in response….

7. Forget the lottery, just pray to Jesus….

8. And hold onto that gun!

What is essentially absent in this piece, an examination of trends that confuses markers for root causes?

Race, and more directly, racism.

Notably, the piece mentions race in only one place, and then only “white,” with blacks reduced to a negation, not white:

As you would expect, the vast majority of people falling under the poverty line in the poorest states do not have white faces—although there are poor whites. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation compiles state poverty rates by race. In the poorest states, whites account for 15 percent to 20 percent of the poor.

Yes, the piece is examining poverty, but that may be the problem.

“Poverty” is the convenient term in the U.S. that can be uttered as a device for ignoring poverty and denying racism.

Mention the disturbing racial imbalance of drug arrests (whites and blacks use marijuana at the same rates, but blacks suffer the brunt of arrests) or mass incarceration (white males outnumber black males 6 to 1 in society, but black males outnumber white males 6 to 1 in prisons), and the response will invariably turn to the suggestion that poverty is the cause, not racism.

Of course, if mass incarceration were a function of poverty and not racism, since twice as many whites as blacks are in poverty, the prison populations would be two white males to every black male.

So in order to answer why the 8 trends noted above exist, why they are tolerated, we must name and then confront the reason: racism. Racism as a historical scar. Racism as a contemporary and undiagnosed, untreated cancer.

The self-defeating South is the function of right-wing political leadership that campaigns with coded language and images (the infamous Jesse Helms “hands” commercial in his run against Harvey Gantt, for example) and then implements policy along racial lines—even when the consequences of that policy also negatively impacts the large white poverty populations in the South: right-to-work laws, limited social program funding, shrinking funding for public institutions, resisting universal healthcare, lingering calls for breaking the wall between church and state, supporting school choice, ignoring the re-segregation of schools (public, charter, and private), and doubling down on gun access and ownership.

If we are seeking root causes to answer “So what is it that perpetuates decades of poverty in the Deep South?,” we must acknowledge the lingering power of racism and then we must also confront how rurality in the South allows that racism to remain powerful, even though it now is mostly coded (although blatant expressions of racism remain common in the South).

In 2014, we must not discuss inequity and poverty, especially in the context of the South, without also naming the historical and contemporary racism driving many of the consequences of social dynamics and public policy.

“The violence of breaking down the door seemed to fill this room with pervading dust”—Faulkner’s collective narration of “A Rose for Emily” describes the climax of an entire community finally facing the truth.

For the U.S., I would argue, the South is our Emily and we remain unwilling, possibly unable, to break down the door, look at the hair on the pillow and admit that we have skeletons in our closet—racism, both a scar and a cancer we refuse to treat.

Recommended Documentaries

The Loving Story

Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later

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8 thoughts on “The Self-Defeating South, Words Not Spoken: Racism as a Scar and Cancer

  1. Pingback: The Self-Defeating South, Words Not Spoken: Racism as a Scar and Cancer – @ THE CHALK FACE
  2. Spent most of my life in the South, watched desegregation drive a wedge at Little Rock. Policy, nor money, can repair that damage. It will require a change of consciousness more potent than mere ‘salvation’.
    One of my best teachers was an old black man, a millwright and minister, who taught me patience and tolerance (and tolerance, again). It took another twenty years for the lessons to sink in.

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