Archive for February, 2008

Racism in the Ozarks

I’m reading an excellent book, Sunddown Towns, by James W. Loewen.  He calls the Ozarks a “sundown region” because of the prevalence of sundown towns in the area and its overwhelmingly white population.  During the sad period between the late 19th century and the early 20th, the white citizens in dozens of Ozark towns (like hundreds all over the country) forced African-American citizens to through largely violent methods.

This was the era when the racist film “Birth of a Nation” sparked a  membership boom for the Klu Klux Klan all over the United States, which spawned years of racially motivated violence.  In some ways, though, “Birth of a Nation” was only a symptom of a problem already deeply seeded into American life.

The white citizens of Harrison, Arkansas forced out its African-American citizens during a 1909 race riot.  Thereafter, the citizen’s major reputation has been for its ignorance and extreme racism.  A leading member of the modern incarnation of the Klan currently lives near this hamlet in Newton County, Arkansas.

The local Klan chapter famously “adopted” a stretch of highway outside Harrison several years ago.  The state “highway beautification project”  displayed a sign that read “This Highway Adopted by the Klu Klux Klan, Next 1 mile,”  for years.  The sign has been gone now for some time, but the group seems to have taken up their efforts in Missouri, where they sued to be included in the Adopt-A-Highway program.

Harrison is one of the most racist towns in the United States, there is no doubt about this.  Its reputation is long and sordid, so I wasn’t surprised to see Harrison in Loewen’s listing.  However, as I continued to read, I realized something that I’m ashamed I didn’t really consider before.  My beloved hometown of Dover, Arkansas is, according to Loewen’s definition, a sundown town.

According to Loewen, one of the most important aspects of sundown towns is their invisibility to whites.  Most whites simply don’t notice anything is wrong when they move into, or grow up in, a sundown town.  The hegemony of white faces becomes the norm and so most whites simply don’t see anything abnormal about living in an all-white town. This is compounded by whites’ tendency to keep a town’s sundown status as a kind of open secret.

Loewen does an excellent job documenting his sources when he sets out to label a place “sundown.”  His interviews and research are weighty and well verified.  At one point, Loewen can’t pin down any documentation for a city’s reputation, but he manages to college nearly twenty verbal assertions that the place fit his definition.

If that’s a decent standard to go by, Dover is already halfway to complete verification. I heard some variation of the sentence, “Blacks shouldn’t go to Dover and definitely not after dark” more times than I can when I was growing up.  There’s been at one lynching in the town, according to oral history.

That’s two for two:  a reputation as a place that is unwelcoming to African-Americans and a history of racial violence.

It’s amazing to me exactly how prone I am (was?) to the very ignorance that Loewen points out.  It never seemed odd to me that there were no African-Americans in town, even though I moved to Dover after years of being one of two white students in an elementary school in Little Rock.  I, like many people from my hometown, just thought the area wasn’t attractive to African-Americans. Or, I believed on some level that African-Americans didn’t historically live in the area.  I was completely wrong, of course. 

 As Loewen points out, our progress toward racial equality in this country may have come a long way.  Many former sundown towns have now shifted attitudes and many African-Americans have moved into them.  However, what I didn’t know was that towns like mine probably have a history of violently pushing “others” out of town.  Its a history that has been ignored.  I’ll never look at the demographics of the Ozarks the same way again. 

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Fighting Everyday Bigotry Answering Uncomfortable Questions

I live in the Bible Belt, so that means I’m used to hearing some rather conservative views on family life from my students.  I once had a student write an essay claiming that all creation myths except Genesis were completely false because they weren’t in the Bible.  This kind of extreme thinking shocks a few of my friends who don’t live here.  The truth is, I was more shocked by the fact that she completely missed the entire point of having the students read the myths in the first place. 

I reacted mildly (although I did fail the paper, for what should be obvious reasons) because I’ve spent my life as a religious outsider in a place where Evangelical Christianity is the standard religious practice.  I’m used to the arguments most people make when it comes up, and I’m also used to directing discussions toward issues of tolerance and acceptance when it pops up in the classroom. 

 Yesterday, though, was one of those moments when the students got so upset that the room devolved into chaos for about ten minutes. It was all I could do to get the students to calm down.  

They are writing essays about culture.  I have a student who is writing about how American culture values “freedom of choice.”  One of her examples was marriage, in which she listed ways in which Americans have the right to make their own decisions about who to marry or how to marry.  She used the availability of same-sex marriage (in some places in the U.S.) as evidence.   So far, so good, right? 

When I put the example on the board in my afternoon class, most of the students in the classroom gasped and hissed at me.  “That’s against God!”  one student insisted.  “That’s illegal!” another called out. I  heard “that’s completely disgusting!” from somewhere. Several insisted that I erase the phrase from the board.

I refused.  “First of all,” I said, “Same-sex marriage is legal in some places in this country. The marriages aren’t recognized by other states, but it is legal in the states that allow it. It does represent the ability to choose who we marry. It’s a good example.” 

“But we don’t even want to look at it! It’s against the Bible!”  One young man was completely adamant.  I had to struggle to calm him down to explain that he was getting off the point. The point was that it is legal in some places. “And besides,” I said, “You can’t deny that something exists just because you don’t like it or you are opposed to it.” 

He looked straight at me and said, “So how do you feel about same-sex marriage?” 

I hate this moment. This isn’t the point of my classes and I try very hard to avoid ever putting too much of my own opinion into the discussion. I simply try to introduce students to news ideas in an objective way.   I sighed.  I said, “I won’t tell you my exact stance. I will tell you this, however.  I don’t believe in judging people. That isn’t my place.  I try to give people the benefit of the doubt until they give me a reason to behave otherwise.  It’s not my place to tell someone else what to be or how to live.” 

A girl in the front row said, “But it is against God. Don’t you believe in God?” 

I really didn’t want to answer this question.  “If you really want to know how I feel about God, I think it is God’s job to judge other people, not mine.” 

At that point, a few other students jumped in to try to calm down the hysterical contingent.  It didn’t work very well.  We ended the class period with me having to almost yell, “Bring your novel next time!” 

I try to remain objective in the classroom because of this very philosophy about letting God do the judging. I don’t have anything against Christianity specifically; I was raised in the same religious environment as most of my students. I sincerely feel that all world views ought to be given respect. 

This little exchange, though, made me realize that if I don’t act as an advocate for tolerance and equality that some of my students may never have to even consider the idea, especially if they won’t even look at the phrase “same-sex marriage” on the whiteboard.  Even in a society as pluralistic as ours, it doesn’t take much for a person to retreat into a cocoon of hateful ideas.  

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