Imagined Utopias of Tolerance

By December 29, 2014Blog

Copyright the Gordon Parks Foundation

Malcolm X once famously observed that the violence and racial strife in America was indicative of “the chickens coming home to roost.” For once in my life, I completely agree with Malcolm X. Except I would substitute the words “Yankee Land” for “America,” because the race-related protests and outrages I see on my television are not located in Alabama or Mississippi or Arkansas. They are deeply planted in the hearts of the Yankee bastions of progressive racial harmony, enlightened acceptance, and so-called tolerance. The people I see who are angry, frustrated, and upset with their treatment are in New York, California, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, etc. Maybe when they were breathlessly loading those Freedom Rider and Voting Rights buses back in the 60’s, a few of those Yankees should have stayed home to work on their own obvious community problems.

I have written previously that I once heard a respected public speaker attribute an observation about the South to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and even though I’ve never been able to find a source for that quote, I believe it to be incredibly true. Dr. King is said to have pointed out that one of the major, core differences between the South and the rest of America is as follows: in the South, although groups and organizations of different people may not get along with each other very well, the individual people within them often do; in the rest of America, the situation is reversed. According to King, that was why he chose Alabama as the focal point of the Civil Rights struggle – not because Alabama was the most backwards place in need of the most change, but because the incredible individual people of Alabama (both black and white) gave him the most promise for success. King observed that individual Alabamians already treated each other with admiration and respect, and he couldn’t bring differing groups together unless the individuals within them were already cooperative. Another way of saying it is that although you can force groups together, you can’t force people together. That has to happen sincerely and directly from the heart. King recognized that despite all the problems of the Jim Crow era, Southerners were already doing that.

Now, here we are 50 years later, and Yankees are finding out something that those of us in the South have known forever. You can’t simply talk a good game of tolerance and acceptance and get away with it. Sooner or later, it’s going to catch up with you. You have to put it into practice and live it every day, every week, every month, and every year. And it seems obvious that many of them still don’t have a clue. The racially motivated protests and violence I see on television are not indicative to me of overall racial unrest all across America. To the contrary, they are a verification that the progressive, enlightened Yankees living in their imagined Utopias of Tolerance are a little lost when it comes to putting their money where their mouth is. Those who are supposed to know better seem to have a long way to go.

I know my buddy Carl Jones has some issues with the movie based on John Grisham’s novel, “A Time to Kill,” but there’s a very important line that has a lot of bearing on this situation. The novel’s accused killer, Carl Lee, says, “You don’t look at me and see a man, you see a black man.” To me, this is exactly the heart of what Dr. King was saying all those years ago about a critical difference between Yankees and Southerners. It might be socially and politically dangerous to speak in such generalities, but Dr. King recognized the necessity and reality of the situation. Until Yankees change the fundamental way they look at “other people,” they will never be able to experience the harmony for which they believe themselves to be so famous.

The events that have been unfolding in Ferguson, Brooklyn, and elsewhere are serious, and I want to be careful as to not misrepresent my feelings as being flippant in any way. But as a Southerner, I’ve been told all my life that I’m racist, backwards, and insensitive by the very Yankees who are now facing their own icy plate of intolerance. Therefore, in times like these, it’s not unreasonable to question the narrative we’ve been force-fed, because something is clearly not right. If Yankees are more racially tolerant than Southerners, then what’s the problem? If the Yankee philosophy of progressive and enlightened racial embrace is so sublime and blissful, where are all those Midwestern Utopias we should expect to find? Paradoxically, why are there still massive populations of minorities thriving happily throughout the so-called racist and backwards South? If the lives of minorities in the South are supposed to be so debased by oppression, why are they still here? Where are all the monumental migrations up to Yankee Paradise? And most importantly, why are people living in the land of milk and honey so fed up with their treatment that they are exploding beyond the boiling point?

Since slavery was abolished, Yankees have had 150 years to work on it and get their act together in proving their own commitment to racial justice. Yet, for some reason, the people in the South continually seem to be happier and more at peace. How is that possible? At some point, Yankees are going to have to stop pointing at Selma and wake up to their own cold, hard reality that something is just not working. And most importantly, Yankees are going to have to face up to the words that terrify them the most – Southerners are simply better at this than they are.

Tom Daniel

Tom Daniel holds a Ph.D in Music Education from Auburn University. He is a husband, father of four cats and a dog, and a college band director who lives back in the woods of Alabama with a cotton field right outside his bedroom window. His grandfather once told him he was "Scotch-Irish," and Tom has been trying to live up to those lofty Southern standards ever since.

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