Who Are the Despicable Racists?

martinsville2We all know that a young white man murdered nine black worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, S.C., just two weeks ago in an act of terrorism. After a wave of murders at the hands of police across the country, it is the most recent acute attack on black lives and has now shed the spotlight on white supremacy in the South, in particular. Who are these people we call white supremacists?

A few days ago, on a drive home, I flipped on the radio and heard middle-class white folks discussing these very topics: white supremacy and the violence in Charleston. Over and over the white callers alluded to the need to stamp out racism in “trailer parks” and in “the country” where white men drive “pickup trucks.” And my guess is that many of the listeners minds – like mine – were pulled toward that stereotyped image of the South: a place of poor, rural, racist, white men who live in trailer parks and drive pickup trucks with confederate flags on them.

Having spent much of the last five years of my life south of the Mason Dixon line, I can attest to the fact that there are poor, rural, racist, white men who live in trailer parks and drive pickups with confederate flags in the South. And I agree: Racism, and in particular white supremacy, must be combated in our trailer parks and in other sorts of southern and rural communities, like the one where I live in southern West Virginia.

Remaining Dangerously Clueless

Now, this is a moment where this blog post could become a story about the problems with stereotyping southern, poor or rural communities – how these communities are diverse, multifaceted and full of complicated and powerful histories of oppression and resistance. And all of that is true. But for today, I want to say something else: White supremacy is alive and thriving in middle-class white communities, like the one where I come from, as well as poorer, rural places in the South. This is a reality that all of the panelists on the radio show, save for the black speaker, failed to name.

White supremacy is alive and thriving in middle-class white communities, like the one where I come from, as well as poorer, rural places in the South.

A trend I’ve noticed in listening to Northern and middle-class white folks talk about racism is that we’ll often point to the public or overtly violent acts of white supremacy carried out in poor white communities and steep ourselves in our shared outrage at the acts of those “rednecks.” And, while I share that outrage at acts of racial violence, I have also come to discover that we middle-class white folks often lift up the racism of poorer whites in a way that allows us to continue to remain clueless about our own racism.

White supremacy is alive and well in white middle-class culture. We breathe life into it when we:

  • Cheer on our black coworkers for being competent (as though competence is surprising in black people).
  • Talk in hushed tones about “bad neighborhoods.”
  • Avoid building relationships with people who aren’t white because we are paralyzed by guilt or fear.
  • Make “practical” excuses for a racist prison system.

When we name the white supremacy that exists in our own class, our own community and within ourselves – when that racism is up for discussion too – we are better equipped to address it.

“Fixing” Ourselves, Too

The work of combating white supremacy is not the work of “fixing” poor white people in the South. The work of combating white supremacy belongs to us middle-class white folks across the country as much as it belongs to other white people. White-supremacy, contrary to line of the white middle-class radio show guests, does not live in poor, rural white people alone.

4 Responses

  1. “Avoid building relationships with people who aren’t white because we are paralyzed by guilt or fear.”

    Okay, sure, it’s a problem. It seems kind of mean – in a counterproductive way – to blame people for this, though. I know I’ve been too shy to really get to know my upstairs neighbors because my Spanish needs tons of work.

    Still, regardless of how awkward it might make me feel, I should get over it.

  2. Imagine how hard it is for your upstairs neighbors to reach out. In addition to a language difference, they may be typecast and experience prejudice on a regular basis if they have brown skin and accents. My former pastor, from Puerto Rico, used to be followed around stores because he’s Latino. He didn’t want to speak Spanish with me since he had worked so hard to learn English! You never know. Take a chance; there are so many ways to communicate. You might make good friends!

  3. Bill Price

    I agree with all that is in this blog. Too often we fight racism by focusing on the individual acts of people. While that is certainly one level to fight, we must also be about dismantling racist institutions in our society. The prison system is one, and there are many other examples. It’s way to easy to place blame on others, but as white people, we ALL participate in, and are advantaged by racist systems.

  4. Johanna Halbeisen

    I just had a long and difficult conversation with a white friend who grew up in the (middle class) South and confessed to me that she had some mixed feelings about the Confederate flag coming down because to her, that meant pride in her Southern heritage. It took me a while to realize that when she said about her ancestors owning slaves and and the later segregation “That’s just the way things were” that she wasn’t explaining, she was defending it. She said she was taught Southern history. I asked her what she was taught about the Civil War. She said it was something about textiles and tariffs. Seriously. This is an otherwise relatively socially conscious woman who says she knows racism is wrong intellectually and “As for the flag, I guess I have to make peace with the fact that it is a painful symbol for many, despite its connection with “Southern pride”. I’m trying to keep her engaged in the discussion, at the same time challenging her assumptions and letting her know that she was lied to throughout her childhood and that her “Southern pride” is about white supremacy. It is my first really in depth conversation about race with someone so blatantly racist and it is challenging me all over the place.

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