A very liberal woman told me at a party last night that I’m the only Mississippian (I live in Oregon, but was a Mississippian for most of my life) she has known who isn’t prejudiced. I interpret such statements as blatant prejudice, so I goaded her by asking how she knew there wasn’t a Klan robe in my closet. I also speculated that modern white Mississippians are less prejudiced against black people than are white Oregonians, although it’s hard to know for sure because Oregonians have been so little tested (1.8% of Oregonians are black versus 37% of Mississippians) whereas Mississippians were long since forced in the direction of racial equality. She retorted that anyone knows if they’re prejudiced because if they’re prejudiced against one group, they’re prejudiced against pretty much every group.
We were teetering on an all out argument when she tried to change the subject. Unwilling to let the matter drop, I told her about the time that, on a dare, I went to a local meeting wearing a dress. To get there, I had to walk several blocks from where I parked, and the hostility I encountered along the way rattled me. By her reasoning all those people who stared hatefully or spoke contemptuously because they thought I was a crossdresser were prejudiced against black people too, casting doubt upon her belief that racism is primarily a Southern problem.
The North was seething with contempt for the racism of the white South during the 1960s, yet—to the delight of Southerners—it was Yankee cities that were ablaze a few years later (many Southerners use Yankee and Northerner synonymously). My house today is in one of the most liberal cities of one of the most liberal states in America. The following is from my 1955 subdivision covenant, and is still binding according to my 1990 contract to buy:
“If any of the property in the tract is ever sold, rented, leased, or given to any person or persons other than a person or persons of the caucasian race (sic), then, in such event, the title for such property shall revert back to the original owners; except that this restriction does not apply to domestic servants…”
During a slightly earlier period, many Oregon towns had sundown laws, the purpose of which was to run any and all black people out of town at sunset. The following is from an interview with James Loewen who wrote Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism.
“People I talk with often think I'm doing my research in the South. But very few people in the South ever did this. In Mississippi, I only found six sundown towns. Compare that to Illinois [where 472 municipalities had sundown laws].”
Still earlier (1844), black people were forbidden to live anywhere in the entire state of Oregon, the penalty being not less than 20 and not more than 39 stripes. The penalty was later changed to involuntary servitude for a set period, although slavery as such was always illegal in Oregon due to a desire to protect the labor market from unfair competition.
The existence of Yankee hypocrisy is why a black Oregon friend (herself a transplanted Southerner) told me that Oregon prejudice is more hurtful than Louisiana prejudice because it’s like a glass ceiling in that it’s obviously there, but no one will admit to it. She also said that many white Oregonians are so eager to prove that they’re not prejudiced that they tend to make fools of themselves around black people by saying things like, “I’ve always wanted a black friend,” or, “I really like people of color.”
In this modern era, black people in the South have too much political and economic clout for white people to run over them, and they’re hardly sitting by the phone hoping some white person invites them to dinner. When I attended faculty meetings as a Mississippi elementary school teacher, the black teachers usually sat together and the white teachers usually sat together. If someone crossed to the other side, they weren’t stared at or talked about, and I would even say that black teachers and white teachers treated one another as equals. Yet, the members of both races made the seemingly universal decision to spend their social time with those who were most like themselves.
Does what I’ve written mean that I’m turning into a booster for the South in my old age? Hell no. I hate the South for its heat, poverty, and religiosity. That’s why I left. Yet many is the time that I have been left speechless by Yankee hypocrisy. In fact, I often want to ask: “Is it possible that you’re really as stupid as you sound?”