In the summer of 2008, I crossed the Mason Dixon line – as many other black people had done decades before me during the Great Migration – and moved to Chicago after graduating from high school.
For the first few weeks, I was euphoric. I felt like I could breathe and move in ways that had been unavailable to me in my Tennessee hometown – a place where I was made to think about my skin tone on a daily basis.
“I haven’t seen a Confederate flag in weeks,” I told my mother on the phone a few weeks in. “I didn’t realize how used I had become to seeing them down there.” She felt pleased for me, because the weight of racism I’d faced back home seemed to already be lighter.
That quickly changed after 23 August – when Barack Obama was named the Democratic nominee for president.
“You Obama-nigger monkey!” a man wearing a Chicago Cubs jersey yelled at me. A few weeks after that, I heard another racial pejorative while out at a bar and another shortly after that. The idea of a black president seemed to shed many northerners of their progressive decorum.
The north wasn’t the utopia I had imagined. It was instead strikingly similar in regards to racism – just without the accents and the flags.
“We must caution against depicting this nation’s racist past and present as solely a localized southern phenomenon,” Jessica Barron, a sociologist at Duke University, told the Guardian.
Barron, who is largely interested in segregation, racism and spatial demography, says there is no doubt that the south has a brutal history of violence towards black people – but that we can’t just focus that history there. Brutality didn’t only begin there, nor is it currently isolated there. A striking example of the ever-present violence black Americans face are the reports that police violence leads to the death of a black man once every 28 hours in cities all across the US.
“We as a nation do not like to talk about slavery in the north, our 12 presidents who owned slaves, or our legal system that continues to legitimate racial disparities,” she said. “In the American imaginary, the south is a backwards place, consumed by its bigoted ways.”
According to Barron, we need to understand that racism isn’t only slavery or Jim Crow laws, but it’s more systemic than these instances. And we need to understand that the entire foundation of the US is built on a racial hierarchy that has always said that white is better than black – not just in the south.
Once we understand this, we can then begin to do the work to stop racism as a whole without trying to lay blame to an area of the country, which she thinks is just a form of complicity.
However, in light of the recent mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, it’s fair to not be able to shake the idea that the south is more violent in its racism. A larger number of hate groups are also active there.
“The density of hate groups in the south has typically been thicker than other parts of the country,” Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) told the Guardian. “[But] it’s not like it’s just a ‘south thing’ – there are a lot of hate groups on the coasts as well.”
The SPLC is the leading organization in the US that represents victims of hate crimes. The organization also tracks all hate groups through their Hate Map, which noted 784 active groups in 2014.
According to Beirich, when it comes to the most violent hate in America, there is no southern or northern divide – rather it’s a national problem that is typically being led by what she calls “lone wolves”.
“For the most part, nowadays the violent acts that have taken place – including the shooting that took place in Charleston – are mostly locals. Sometimes they’ve been involved in hate groups, sometimes they haven’t. [But] they mostly are people getting radicalized on the internet and choosing to do this stuff on their own.”
Beirich says such crimes are the result of people digging deep and being influenced by forums and websites such as StormFront.org, which has over 300,000 registered white nationalists.
In other words, the internet is now the problem.
While she acknowledged that people on sites like StormFront.org should have their first amendment rights supported, she also feels that it’s the responsibility of businesses to not make money off messages that could influence others like Dylan Roof, for “hate propaganda leads to hate violence”.
Roof exemplified this in his online manifesto, where he wrote: “We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the Internet. Well someone has to have bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”
In his interview with Marc Maron, Obama said:
Racism, we are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public … It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened 200-300 years prior.
As the US hopefully begins to work to realize what the president points to, and Confederate flags begin to come down in Columbia, South Carolina, and maybe Mississippi, many of us will all begin to realize, like I did in 2008, that no matter where you live in the US, racism remains – even if the flags come down.
Source: The Guardian