For the most part, I grew up in a small suburb of Orlando, Florida. Since Disney’s Epcot Center employed people from all over the world (as did a host of other global institutions in the area) to showcase international culture, it led to an ethnic diversification of Central Florida atypical to this part of the country. Some might say Florida isn’t “The South,” and to look at only Orlando, that may ring true; but outside of the sprawling urban areas, all of the elements that define The Bible Belt are aplenty. My Orlando suburb of Oviedo, though, enjoyed a wide variety in regard to economic class and culture; every shade of melanin possible, from poor to rich, with a relative majority of middle-class Caucasians. As a kid growing up there, I belonged to the ethnic majority but my economic category fluctuated between poor and lower-middle class.
I moved to Birmingham, Alabama, in the middle of my freshman year of high school and experienced a bit of culture shock. After spending the majority of my grade school years in the Seminole County public education system including half a year at Oviedo High School, I noticed a lot of subtle differences during my acclimation into Jefferson County’s Shades Valley High School. For instance, my Oviedo High lunch room was a large, wide open space with lots of natural light and big round dining tables, featuring amenities such as vending machines and even chain pizza vendors that sold slices in addition to the regular school cafeteria food. The relative diversity of the local community was well represented in this recreational setting; at any given table, you could find a variety of kids from different backgrounds sitting around it together. The rules of conduct during lunchtime were also pretty lax; not only were we given as much as an hour-long break, but I remember us being a pretty raucous bunch, cutting up and laughing and having in-depth conversations. By contrast, my Shades Valley High lunch room was much different. It featured gloomier artificial lighting, no choice but bagged lunch or cafeteria food, and rows of rectangular tables on both sides of the dining area. What really hit me was the segregation. It took me a little while to catch on, but I finally realized that even though we might’ve walked to the lunchroom together as a group of white and black friends, as soon as we crossed that threshold into the dining area we split up and each went to our ‘side’ of the room. Black kids went left, white kids went right, and we basically sat with our backs to each other while eating our lunches for about half an hour, then rejoined outside the lunchroom to go to our next class.
It was so subtle and subconscious, and it blew my mind. We didn’t even really talk about it, everyone just complied as if they were following an unspoken rule. It of course wasn’t an actual rule, and every now and then someone from either side would dare break the cultural norm and sit on the opposite side—like a grain of pepper in a sea of salt—but there was this strange and palpable tension in the air when it happened. It was self-segregation, willful and understood, an inculcated behavior as the result of a region’s refusal to fully grow past its horrific and hurtful history. The South was dense with white supremacy, from its days of reliance on slave labor and its rebellion against abolition to being the bastion of resistance against the Civil Rights Movement, and Birmingham certainly made a name for itself during this era. The residuals of these deep, thick scars of inhumanity are ever-present in daily life here; it only takes the barest of perspective to see these wounds clearly and recognize how fresh and easily reopened they can be when touched. To me, they get touched upon quite frequently.
The special Senatorial election of 2017 in Alabama was one of these moments. On the one hand, you had a Republican candidate who’d expressed countless sentiments of xenophobia and racism; Roy Moore was asked his opinion of a period when America was “great” and he replied, “I think it was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another… Our families were strong, our country had a direction.” On the other hand, you had a Democratic candidate whose campaign had shown how utterly tone-deaf politics in Alabama can be with regard to racism; early on, the Doug Jones campaign released an ad that could easily be perceived as sympathetic to the Confederacy’s cause. It was widely criticized by lots of staunch Jones supporters, and these criticisms undoubtedly reached the ear of decision-makers within the campaign and very likely of Mr. Jones himself, but the ad was never pulled or even so much as addressed by the campaign. A number of other missteps had been taken by the campaign since then, most not egregious enough on their own to warrant outrage, but built upon the tone of the continuing Confederate ad, it added up to shooting oneself in the foot.
This is exactly how racism operates in the 21st century, lots of little bits that pile up and create a mountainous impediment. During a debate about institutional racism on social media, a commenter once relayed a definition that stuck with me: “It’s the amalgamated product of subtle bias across multiple levels of a system that add up to a statistically significant effect.” It’s not ‘whites-only’ water fountains and laws that say black people can’t testify in court against white people, it’s the little differences that can be difficult to notice if they don’t apply to you personally. It’s not just how some modern laws are enforced disproportionately, but also the inherent prejudices of Constitutional law that have slipped through the cracks throughout the years. It’s also not just about legislation, but about the lingering misperceptions fostered in sheltered rural communities scattered across the country yet very concentrated in The South; areas where citizens proudly fly a flag that represents the segregationist movement of the 1950s, claiming it expresses their “heritage, not hate” while willfully ignoring the hateful heritage they’re actually promoting. It’s opposition against the removal of monuments from publicly-owned land that glorify leaders in the war to preserve slavery, the continued voter suppression tactics and Supreme Court-sanctioned gerrymandering of districts, it’s the “white lives matter” and “blue lives matter” in response to black lives being taken by police brutality, it’s the overt racism of Roy Moore versus the racial insensitivity of Doug Jones. Once you remove the blinders, it’s everywhere you look; perhaps not in your direct line of sight, but easily identified in your peripheral vision.
Systemic racism in 2017 is the black citizens of Alabama coming to the rescue by choosing racial imperceptivity over unabashed racism.