Guess what? American racism isn’t about South

Published 11:57 AM EDT, Wed June 24, 2015

Story highlights

Jay Parini: It's easy to pin racism on the South. Truth is, racial injustice is widespread, profound in cities and schools across country

He says slavery had history in North we downplay. Racism not "South problem," it's "American problem"

Editor’s Note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont. His newest book is “Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal,” which comes out in October. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) —  

It’s a little too easy for people who live outside the South to look smugly at the battles over race, violence, and the rebel flag that are raging in South Carolina and elsewhere below the Mason-Dixon Line and think: “Pull down that flag! It’s time they stopped this racism in the South.”

This kind of thinking is gravely mistaken. The fight for racial justice is not a Southern problem; it’s an American problem.

jay parini
Courtesy Oliver Parini
jay parini

Of course the shooting of nine black people at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston is among the worst hate crimes in memory – terrorism, plain and simple. It was a further outrage, for black residents of South Carolina, that the American flag has flown at half-staff over the state capitol while the flag of the Confederacy flies high. This rebel trademark only became popular in the Southern states after the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Board of Education (1954), in which the court declared that segregating black and white children in public schools was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

And this was only the beginning of a Southern effort to resist elimination of Jim Crow laws, variously enacted in the South from the 1890s running through the early 1960s. These laws created an apartheid state in places like South Carolina.

I remember driving with my parents through the Carolinas in the 1950s, and noticing with some confusion that black children were not allowed to drink from “white” drinking fountains or eat at diners where whites could eat. I asked my mother about this. “In the South, they think that black folks are inferior,” she said.

In Pennsylvania, where I grew up, it was obvious to me that black and white children went to different schools in places like Philadelphia. The races lived in separate neighborhoods and attended different schools, for the most part.

It’s very difficult to figure out what it means for a city to be “racist,” but a study by two well-known scholars, John Logan and Brian Stults, suggests that racism and segregation are a problem in many cities outside of the South, including Boston, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and Chicago. Anecdotally, as a writer in Boston Magazine has said, Bostonians are often cited as among the most racist in the country.

The truth is, very little in the way of racial integration in schools exists in most large cities across the United States. It’s not just the South.

Another recent study has shown that segregation is pervasive and trending in the wrong direction throughout New York – one of the most “liberal” of states in the Northeast. “New York’s record on school segregation by race and poverty is dismal now and has been for a very long time,” write UCLA scholars John Kucsera and Gary Orfield in their 2014 study.

02:14 - Source: CNN
Being black in Charleston

And racial segregation in American schools won’t end as long as schools are funded locally instead of federally – since poor neighborhoods get poor schools, and these schools will produce a kind of de facto segregation. This is a recipe for inequality, and most Americans don’t want to think about it seriously.

It’s a lot easier to shout: “Pull down that flag!”

The rebel flag is a degraded symbol, not unlike the swastika, an ancient and benign symbol that the Nazi movement co-opted. Slavery was a terrible crime: Between 1525 and 1866, more than 12 million Africans were kidnapped and sent on slave ships to the New World, and by some estimates about 450,000 disembarked in the United States, many ending up in the Northern states. Indeed, slaves were auctioned regularly in the Market House in Philadelphia and in Merchant’s Coffee House in New York.

Slavery persisted in places like New Jersey almost to the end of the Civil War. Roughly 2 million Africans died en route to these shores, and the economy of all 13 colonies was dependent on slavery, which was backed by the sanction of law. This sad history is part of our national heritage – not just Southern heritage – and it’s something we need to deal with.

Pointing fingers at the South isn’t necessarily the best way to do this, as it turns the problem into an easy divide between “us” and “them.” It’s a problem of “we.”

Racism, and the violence that surrounds it, exists everywhere, and reconciliation begins in our own hearts, wherever we live.

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