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President Barrack Obama’s initial comments in the press conference last week about the arrest of academic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. by the Cambridge police were, from I could see, consistent with the reality in America. I agreed with him when he said it was a “stupid” action on the part of the police in Cambridge to arrest Gates. If they have had racial sensitivity courses in Boston it sure seems the course material needs to be vastly improved or they need to hire other officers. And if it was also a power play on the part of the police then that needs to be looked at as well.
There’s always mammoth changes to be made in America thanks to its racist past and how racism is revealed in the present. To demonstrate this, here are some incidents in the South in the past few decades that, for me, have been memorable. They demonstrate how ingrained these attitudes can be and how past and present practices echo in the minds of victims. I have not used specific names in this article as in some instances, particularly the more recent of course, repercussions are still possible.
I’ll start with an incident in the Mississippi Delta in the 1960s. University of Georgia historian James Cobb refers to the Delta as “the most Southern place on earth” in his book by that name – “The Most Southern Place on Earth: the Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity” (1992). What better place than the Delta to reveal the racial, sexual overtones and draconian/ruthless Jim Crow practices in the South and black encounters with white police.
A few years ago a black friend in Mississippi told me about her brother who, around the time of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, was driving in the Mississippi Delta with a friend. Both were about to graduate from university. While driving they were suddenly stopped and jailed by a Delta police officer. They were scared and reasonably so.
Suffice it to say, in the 1960s, 70s 80s, and on, we were always hearing of southern police stopping black males for driving a car that was considered above their designated status – they should certainly not be driving a car that was comparable to middle and upper class whites. This was the classic “driving while black” scenario! But this scenario did not apply in the Delta incident I’m referring to here.
The real reason, my friend told me, that these young men were stopped in the Delta and what infuriated the “white” officer was that they had been driving too close to a car driven by a white female. This was, nevertheless, not written on the ticket, as there was no formal law against driving close to a white female.
My friend’s brother managed to get in touch with their mother who lived close to Jackson, Mississippi – some distance away. His mother then went into a panic mode and essentially ordered her husband to do whatever he could to get their son out of jail before the authorities “castrated” him. The fear was obviously based on past actions by white authorities against incarcerated and sometimes not incarcerated black males. Thanks to having some contacts in the county, the father managed to meet the county judge and post bond for his son. Later, when the young men appeared in court, the officer testified to the fact that they had been driving too close to a white female. The judge angrily retorted that had he known he would have kept them in jail.
The brother now has a Ph.D. and has had a distinguished academic career.
I will now fast forward to the early 1990’s when I had a meeting with a black friend in downtown Atlanta. After the meeting he asked me to walk with him to his car. He wanted to continue talking, he said, but had left the keys in his car and thought we could talk while he figured out a way to open his car. Later he said, “Heather, you know why I needed to have you there didn’t you?” I naively said I had no idea. Similar to the Gates incident, my friend said the reason was because if he was openly exposed trying to get into his own car in downtown Atlanta he would likely be accused by the police of trying to steal it. If I were standing there, as a white woman, it would look as if he was trying to help me get into my own car. My friend, a professional himself, and married to a physician, lived in one of the most exclusive and wealthy neighborhoods in Atlanta. He told me that when he and his son were at the local grocery store the white manager always kept a suspicious eye on them and followed them around the store. He was glad to move out of the neighborhood!
Later in the 1990’s Oxfam International was producing a film comparing its economic development work with black farmers in Mozambique and in the southern United States. Oxfam’s U.S. farmer for the film was a black vegetable producer in southwest Georgia who was part of the cooperative community network in the rural South where I work. This particular farmer had managed to obtain an excellent market in Atlanta for his produce along with a top price. Filming in southwest Georgia, however, the Oxfam team wanted footage not only of the on-farm production process but also the marketing experience. So they went to where this farmer would normally sell his produce in southwest Georgia. When the farmer approached the merchant in his area, with the film team capturing every move, the merchant said suddenly “I’m not buying anything from you. You’re just an uppity nigger” and went on to complain that he knew he was getting higher prices in Atlanta!
The Oxfam team, I am told, was stunned by this reaction and left the segment out of the documentary. They should have left it in!
These are just a few examples of racist attitudes and reactions in the South in the far and not too distant past. As always, there’s much work to do!
HEATHER GRAY produces "Just Peace" on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She has been a part of the food security movement for 18 years in Africa, Asia and the United States. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.