Racism Rebooted

| Wed Jun. 29, 2005 2:40 PM EDT

Gary Younge has an important article in the Nation whose ostensible theme is the recent spat of re-trials in the South for racist murders during the 20th century that have gone unpunished. The larger underlying theme, though, is that while many of these trials do offer much in the way of purging the South's dark past, they do nothing to address the broader systemic racism that still haunts the region:

[W]hile the crimes that occurred during segregation were rarely systematic--the individuals who carried them out and the manner in which they carried them out were far too crude for that--they were systemic. They were born from a system of segregation that worked to preserve white privilege in the face of a concerted progressive onslaught--a system in which the white community had to collude in order for it to function.

While the scale and nature of those privileges may have changed, the privileges themselves still exist. You can see them in the racial disparities in health, employment and poverty; you can watch their physical incarnation in the segregated academies to which so many whites send their children; and you can observe them on death row, where so many black parents see their children being sent.

Indeed, there seems to be an ongoing attempt across the nation to single out these murders, the Ku Klux Klan, the lynchings that went on for centuries, and atone for them, in an effort to purge the racist ghosts of old. The North has been doing this to the South for years, as if there's only one backward region in the country that still has to overcome racism. Yet, as Younge notes, "the top five residentially segregated metropolitan areas in the United States are Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis and Newark … [Y]ou will find higher rates of black poverty in Wisconsin, Illinois and West Virginia than Mississippi." That's not to say Mississippi's in the clear—far, far from it—but it's also not even close to being the sole source of racial inequity in the United States today.

This brings to mind Howard Dean's speech last year about wanting his party to appeal to the guys with Confederate flags in their pick-up trucks was right. Insofar as he was suggesting that racism is something that can be overlooked, as many believed, there was something troubling about his speech, certainly. But insofar as he was pointing out that "northern" whites have no real basis for feeling morally superior to Southerners over race issues, as tends to happen, he was exactly right.

UPDATE: In a similar vein, more reflections on the trial of former Ku Klux Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen here, from David Cunningham in the Boston Globe.

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