Saturday, March 23, 2013

What if Everything You Know to be True Turns Out to be False?

I'm rereading Jason Sokol's There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975 for some deep background on the kinds of attitudes average whites possessed during the period. He has a long chapter called "Our Negroes No More" that brilliantly conveys a couple of key points.

First, southern white paternalism is well known, as is the widespread red-baiting whites used to combat the civil rights movement. But the deep connection between them was not clear to me until today. Let's define the terms. Paternalism is evoked by the chapter title: white southerners regularly spoke of "our" Negroes and professed to know and understand them better than anyone else, to have their best interests at heart, and to be responsible for their gradual uplift. Red-baiting was the widespread practice of tarring any civil rights protest in a given community as the work of communist outsiders who swept into town and stirred up local blacks.

When reading outlandish claims about a communist infiltration, it is easy to assume that this rhetoric was opportunistic. It was a useful tool in the hands of southern whites in the Cold War environment, nothing more. But that ignores the connection to paternalism. When confronted with how deeply whites believed in their sense of possession over "our good Negroes," it becomes clear that red-baiting was not only useful, but for many whites psychologically necessary.

Faced with local blacks engaging in protest, whites could give up the beliefs of a lifetime and admit that they didn't know blacks so well after all, or they could choose to believe that blacks were being misled by outsiders and all would return to normal once the professional agitators left. It was much easier to believe the latter. To put it another way, whites turned to anti-communist rhetoric not only as a strategic tool in the battle against civil rights -- which is how it is usually studied -- but for their own peace of mind.

In Albany, Georgia, for example, during the height of the protests a white woman wrote the Albany Herald to express her belief that "We have lots of good Negroes here, but until the City can throw those agitators out and get Albany back to normal, I guess the other Negroes will be scared half to death." The sight of "good Negroes" protesting was not to be taken at face value. They must have been pushed into it out of fear of the "agitators."

The second point that comes through is that segregation relied not only on a lot of people who thought it right that whites should rule, but a significant number of whites who denied anything of the kind was occurring. Whites had so imbibed the stories they told themselves about black contentment and the extraordinary goodness with which whites had treated them that many whites were baffled when civil rights protests broke out in their town.

R.J. Williams asked incredulously, "What do the Negroes want? Their schools are newer and better than the whites." Likewise, Faye Burnham queried, "Why do they want integration? They have everything that the white people have." These statements were so far from the truth that it is tempting to posit some sort of mental illness or singular depravity, but that doesn't suffice because they reflected such widespread sentiments.

It speaks to the level of self-deception required to perpetrate injustice in a culture influenced by Christianity. Many white southerners possessed a variety of commitments pertaining to their Christian faith and sense of what America meant, commitments that made it a near psychological necessity to create a false reality about what whites were doing to blacks.

There are implications in this for the present day. We'll get to that later.

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