Once upon a time, nothing terrified white people more than the idea of facing black people as equals. And nothing terrified black people more than white people.
And with good reason. Cowards, some in white robes, and some so indifferent that they didn’t even bother to hide their identities prowled the night, hanging “Strange Fruit” from the tree branches that hung over the streets of our city.
Times changed. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became the conscience of a nation. I’m filled with pride every time I see his name being treated with the reverence it deserves. He came to help black Americans, but he ended up giving white Americans their souls back. His “Dream” is yet unfulfilled, and forever gives us a distant star to reach for.
I look at this city, and I know without a shadow of a doubt that most of us have embraced that dream. With every day that passes, we whittle away, if not bludgeon outright, the ignorance of decades past. Every generation is more enlightened than the one before. I’m hoping that by the time my grandkids are old enough to have any concept of racism, they’ll have to Google “the n-word” to find out what it means. I cringe every time I hear it, but who knows— The black kids that use it casually to refer to one another have the right idea. By owning the word, by making it theirs, they strip away the power of it.
But sometimes, I look at the city around me and wonder just how far we’ve come since April 4, 1968.
Blacks can certainly hold positions of power now. We have a black mayor, black city councilmen, black legislators representing us in Nashville, a black county mayor, black county commissioners, a black congressman representing the 9th District, and if I have my way, a black representing us in the US Senate starting next January. I may not take pride in every black individual in our government, but I don’t take pride in every white individual in our government, either.
I’m more concerned with the socioeconomic aspects of the greater Memphis area.
I’m white. In fact, I’m not even sure how accurate it is to call me white. I’m paler than they are. If I wore shorts, my legs would glow in the dark. I’m whiter than white, but I pass for white quite easily.
Because of this, people feel like they can take verbal liberties around me that they wouldn’t take if I was darker. A white woman I was talking to several months ago saw nothing wrong with complaining to me about the “stupid black people” at the cable company. An old white man I was talking to several weeks ago thought nothing of telling me that he hated being in the hospital because of all the black people that worked there. Both times, I was in a business situation and not in a good position to tell these ignorant people what I thought of them. I sternly assured the old woman that there were just as many stupid white people at the cable company (I couldn’t bring myself to lie and say that Time Warner Memphis is a hotbed of competence, or even adequacy) and asked her not to talk like that around me anymore. And the old man went whiter than my legs when I lied and told him I was engaged to a black girl that worked in his hospital, and said that the people he insulted must have done a good job since he was standing there.
But even incidents like that aren’t the most worrisome. They’re relatively few, and fewer still as the years pass. Idiots will always be with us, and I’m grateful when they identify themselves. I’m more concerned about something less obvious—
The more ground that is gained by blacks socially, politically, and economically, the further wealthy white people will move to get away from them. While part of me wants to say “Addition by subtraction. You make our city stronger by leaving it”, I’m also painfully aware that they take our tax base with them.
A few months ago, I went canvassing with a black candidate (Reginald Fentress— Give us a decent campaign budget, and we’ll get him into the Governor’s Mansion). We were fairly well received in Harbor Town, even by a white couple that assured us they weren’t voting for him. Reginald’s a fighter, so he stood there and talked with them, trying to persuade them. The woman talked about how ethnically diverse Harbor Town was, and she casually mentioned that the last place she lived in was teeming with racial diversity.
“Ma’am, if you don’t mind my asking, where is that?”
She didn’t miss a beat, looked up and said “Halle Plantation”.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with Halle Plantation. I’ve been there many times on business. It’s a subdivision in Collierville. I’m no real estate appraiser, but there’s not much in Halle Plantation that I could imagine selling for less than $400,000. There may be a few non-whites living there, but I’ll be damned if I’ve ever seen them. I’ve seen black housekeepers. I’ve seen Asian gardeners. I’ve seen Mexicans cutting the grass and building more overpriced houses. But as far as living there, I would guess that Halle Plantation is about as racially diverse as the Mayflower.
I wanted to stand there and argue with her. I really did. It would have been so easy. But the sun was setting, and Reginald and I had much more ground to cover.
That was back in March. Here it is, the end of July, and the skewed idea of racial diversity that this woman had in her mind still haunts me to this day.
Every day I wonder… How far have we come? And does anyone know where we’re going?
My guess would be Fayette County. White flight will keep moving east until it finally reaches Jackson.
But there’s a great upside. I don’t have to spend my days listening to the Archie Bunkers of the world whining that things aren’t the way they used to be. I don’t want to live in a world that they would be happy living in.