By Jenny Irons
I recently moved back to the South after a 17-year absence. Someone asked me why I would return to this place, to come back after being away for so long. The mess, I said. It’s motivating. I meant the mess of extreme inequality—of race, of gender, of sexuality, of class, of nationality. It’s hard to be purely academic about such matters when you’re not ensconced in an ivory tower atop a lovely rolling hill in the Northeast. Yes, racism exists everywhere; as last month’s posts tell us, it thrives in “free spaces” and sneakily deploys itself all over the country. But the racial inequality in the South is particularly stark and visible, and it has very deep roots.
I began to study the civil rights movement in college, and I later spent a lot of time examining an organization called the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, which was formed by the state legislature in 1956 to defend the state against federal encroachment. You might call it the state of Mississippi’s mandated hate group. The organization was closely tied to the White Citizens’ Council for many years, and it funneled state funds to the segregationist movement. Yet when the inevitability of integration began to sink in for one Sovereignty Commission director, he began to initiate an organizational shift. Though he was never entirely successful, the director tried to connect the organization to more racially moderate business groups that advocated compliance with federal laws to avoid economic calamity. The director also began to talk about the Sovereignty Commission’s work a bit differently; where he had defended the practicality of segregation in the past, he began to emphasize the importance of white voter registration and of individual freedoms. Because of its institutional embeddedness in the federal-state system, the Sovereignty Commission ultimately diverged from the Councils. But as public spaces, universities, and jobs opened up to black Mississippians, racism persisted. The discourse of white dominance shifted from the outright defense of racial segregation to the proud insistence on privacy and individualism. The material manifestations of racism, such as the black-white gap in access to quality education, housing, and healthcare, were (and are) attributed to individual failings or choices, rather than to the private school movement, white flight, racist lending practices, and neighborhood covenants. Continuity despite change, ideologically and materially.
Last month’s essays on the topic at hand paid a lot of attention to how today’s ideological context enables organized hate to exist in both extremist (i.e., neo-Nazi) and moderate (i.e., Patriot/Tea Party) forms. For example, Kim Ebert discussed her work on how racist organizations altered their framing practices in the civil rights era, setting the stage for today’s emphasis on individual rights—language that thrives in a world where the ideology of color-blindness is persistent. Peter Owens addressed the ways in which today’s ideological powerhouses—colorblindness and multiculturalism—create a climate where hate groups grow and discussions of racism are silenced. Further, both Ebert and Owens imply that as long as we can continue to point to organized hate groups as “the” examples of racism, we can ignore the more subtle ways in which racism endures.
Alongside these ideological currents exist the mass incarceration of black men, failing schools in predominantly black urban areas, and a lack of sympathetic media and public attention to racial violence in black communities. As Loic Wacquant has elaborated, we don’t have widespread slavery in the U.S. today, but we have mass incarceration; we have new forms of Jim Crow. Thus, the irony of white hate groups is that as racial inequality persists in all its brutal, inhumane forms, a marginal minority of whites persists in claiming victimhood, in organizing around it and their hatred for people of color.
But just as the legacy of civil rights era white hate groups is found across the nation, so, too, are organizations and groups committed to racial justice. Mark Warren documents the activism of whites committed to racial justice. Heidi Beirich and Evelyn Schlatter, who contributed to last month’s discussion of hate groups, represent the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which continues to play an invaluable role in monitoring and challenging racism across the country.
The legacy of the civil rights movement is found today in protest movements for racial justice, but it is more often found in local organizations whose employees and volunteers work tirelessly to address racial inequality. In my return to the South, I have begun to pay more attention to such organizations, and I am more encouraged than I have been in a long time. The mess is still here, and it’s still overwhelming, but consider the work of a few local organizations in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice bridges racial boundaries to organize workers across industry, paying particular attention to the exclusion of poor and working class African Americans from jobs and to the exploitation of immigrant workers. The Partnership for Youth Development works in schools and across the non-profit community to maximize the educational experiences of all children in New Orleans. The Institute for Women and Ethnic Studies has created community-based health projects for underserved women and children of color. Other organizations, like VOTE-NOLA , the Youth Empowerment Project, and the Juvenile Justice Project advocate for reforms in the criminal justice system and assist those who have been incarcerated.
Why are contemporary national movements around racial justice difficult to sustain? Because those twin powers of color-blindness and multiculturalism make both conversations and action addressing racism very difficult. But the mess itself is difficult as well. It’s rooted in a long past, and it’s a monster to tackle. Thus, our hope lies in the forms today’s racial justice activism often takes: in the nonprofit organizations where folks work tirelessly and endlessly to effect change on the ground, to get underserved, poor people of color access to tutoring, college prep, jobs, the vote, healthcare, justice, a life free from violence, etc. The list is virtually endless, as is the need.