U.S./ Racism on Both Sides of the Mason-Dixon Line
Ever since the killing of nine African-Americans at Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, South Carolina, the nation has been focused on removing the symbols of the Confederacy. It is a good thing that the Confederate battle flag was taken down from the grounds of the Capitol in South Carolina, but that is not enough to heal the nation’s racial tensions. There was no Confederate battle flag flying in West Baltimore where riots broke out earlier this year, nor in Chicago where eleven African-Americans were slain in violence over the 4th of July weekend.
Symbolism is important and, regrettably, some of the debate in recent weeks has been foolish. Young people objected to a guitar in a store because it was festooned, they thought, with the Confederate battle flag. In fact, it was the Union Jack. (Maybe the Irish should object.) My wonderful Dad clips articles in the local papers in Connecticut and send them to me. Turns out there is an effort there to re-name the state Democratic Party’s major fundraiser, the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner. It is true that both Jefferson and Jackson were slaveholders. It is also true that they, in their different ways, laid the seeds for an understanding of liberty in the national consciousness that eventually, and at huge cost, forced the nation to confront slavery and end it. There is a difference between pulling down a noxious symbol and re-writing history.
Any anachronistic reading of history is suspect per se. Think of the debate about Fr. Serra’s forthcoming canonization. It is true that we would not pursue his methods of evangelization today and, as Pope Francis said in Bolivia, the Church committed sins in its effort to spread the Gospel. But, before we get on our high horse and stand in judgment of Serra – or Jefferson – neither man dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, just as neither man exploited the earth as we do daily. The Connecticut Democrats have more important things to do than rename their dinner.
America’s racial problems are not confined to Dixie and they are not merely symbolic. Those problems exist on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line and they are structural. This past Sunday (July 20 -ed.), the Washington Post’s Outlook section has a must-read commentary by Professor Thomas Sugrue of New York University that pointed out the many ways racism thrives in the north. Twenty of the twenty-five most racially segregated cities are in the north, not the south. Between 1945 and 1965, there were more than 200 attacks on black homeowners moving into Detroit. A recent investigation by the fair Housing Alliance showed than in 87% of cases, real estate agents directed their customers to neighborhoods dominated by the clients’ own race.
The racism of housing policy spills over into other areas of life. New York is the state with the highest percentage of black students who attend schools with no whites, a staggering 64.6%. Only two of the other ten states with the highest rates of racial segregation in schools are in the south. And, a Politico story this morning highlights the ways that even transportation funding in Wisconsin has been deployed to satisfy the commuting needs of affluent white suburbanites at the expense of basic repairs of roads in inner city, largely African-American neighborhoods.