Thursday, February 05, 2015

The Terrifyingly Simple Normalcy that Segregation Used to Be

I saw the following photo from a friend's Facebook newsroll:

What read while scolling through Facebook was "COLORADO ENTRANCE," and it was the incongruity of that statement (that there was an entrance specifically for people from Colorado) that made me stop at the photo and actually read it; to see that it was a color photo from the segregated South.

This made me wonder whether the fact that I unconsciously read "Colorado" instead of "colored" was an indication of the complete unthinkability that such institutionalized racism could exist made my unconscious mind immediately fill in the word as the name of the 38th State. The completely calm and completely normal-looking appearance of everything in the photo also is so foreign to me. Indeed, the utter banality of the form that segregation took in day-to-day life in the South reminded me of the phrase, "the banality of evil," first coined by Hannah Arendt. Here is a really good and easy to understand summary of Arendt's point about evil and how it is so often so banal:

The banality of evil (the subtitle of Arendt's book covering the war crimes trial in Jerusalem of Eichmann) derives from encountering Eichmann, a man conceived as being a characteristic monster, and discovering that he was an utterly normal type of man who produced evil as a matter of just doing his job, and not because he was some sort of monster. Extending this recognition to the broader populace, Arendt writes with some understanding as to why societies - filled with similarly innocuous (and even generally good) people - can cause such massive evil to take place:
The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him. They were neither overly perverted nor sadistic. They were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal... This normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together...
-- Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: Report of the Banality of Evil, pg. 276

This links back to what I find (and likely many find) so jarring about the photo above: its terrible and terrifying normality. It is the utter normality of the scene pictured above that is jarring. It is the dull, day-to-day reality of segregation that is worrisome. We so often learn about the harsh problems associated with Segregation - the lynchings, the beatings, the stacked juries - and we so often read about the Civil Rights movements - the marches, the sit-ins, the use of the National guard to open schools and universities to desegregation - that the picture of Segregation and the reaction to it seem so much more about action and reaction; of mostrous evil and righteous struggle. And it is easy to paint that picture. And it is easy to think in those terms. (Which makes it easier to paint the picture, and so on.) But, as the photo tacitly implies, for the vast amount of time and for the vast amount of people, Segregation was simply a boringly normal part of life.

Thinking on this, statements by some older Southern Whites who have their perspectives on life during Segregation ring even more sinister, despite their statements lacking any overt inflammatory statements about how they reveled in its more obviously monstrous aspects. One telling example is in the remembrances of former Mississippi governor, Haley Barbour, who commented that his town of Yazoo, MS, during the Civil Rights era, "wasn't that bad." In Salon, Steve Kornacki wrote about why Barbour's position on race in the South was troubling in a way that Clinton's wasn't:
The controversy that his remarks will surely stir ... underscores how problematic Barbour's political roots are for him. The simple fact that he was born in a segregated town ... isn't the issue. Bill Clinton was a product of segregation, don't forget. The problem is that Barbor, unlike Clinton, has never seemed to come to terms with what segregation meant to African-Americans throughotu the South - and what the legacy of segregation continues to mean now.
...[Barbour] has previously asserted that the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962 - accomplished only through federal intervention and which set off riots that killed two people - was "a very pleasant experience."
He's also told of building a friendship ... at Ole Miss in 1965 with one of the school's few black students, a woman he identified ... as Verna Lee Bailey. ...Of course, the woman's real name is Verna Ann Bailey, and ... she didn't even recall meeting Barbour. She also remembered the integration of Ole Miss a little differently: "I thought my life was goign to end."
And then theres his claim that the South's wholesale transformation from Democratic to Republican stronghold had nothing to do with race.... That would be news to anyone familiar with the vote that Barry Goldwater received in Mississippi in the 1964 presidential election: 87 percent.... The truth, of course, is that the passage of Civil Rights in 1964 kicked off a steady, decades-long shift among white Southerners from the Democratic Party (which they'd been loyal to since northern Republicans had tried to impose the "humiliation" of Reconstruction on them) to the GOP.
It is hard to look back in history and not want to align yourself with the "bad guys." It is especially hard when the history you perceived was actually not that bad. In their paper, "But I'm no Bigot," authors O'Brien, Crandall, Horstman-Reser, and Warner discuss distancing strategies used by White Southerners to somehow say that they aren't racist (despite having racist attitudes). One major way was to define being racist as belonging to an openly racist and historically violently racist organization, such as the KKK, or doing outrageously racist things, such as Black lynching or cross burnings. However, as the photograph above shows, these sorts of actions wasn't what Segregation was about for most of the people most of the time. No, it was something far more troubling and worrisome, specifically for its non-overtness; it was something that was terrifying in retrospect because it was so normal as to not warrant much mention: it was the banality that everyday life with Segregation meant to the vast majority of people, Black and White.

And it was a form of racism that the vast majority of Whites supported, even as they might similarly have distanced themselves from the more overtly "evils" of Segregation (such as membership in the Klan or participation in lynchings).

And so we return to the photo of a covered entrance on which a sign marked "colored entrance" points, in shining neon lights, to an open door, outside of which stand a nicely attired woman in robin's-egg blue and girl in white with a bow in her hair. The woman appears to be putting something away in her purse while the girl waits; that somewhat bored stare that children have (while waiting, waiting, waiting for adults to do thier thing) marks her face. In the distance, a woman in a red dress walks up the street. A black-painted car shows up as as slightly blurred on the street, caught in motion as it drives down and to the right of the photo. Neon lights up the street point to other businesses, which - perhaps - also have similar signs attached to them: "colored entrance" or "White entrance." The woman in blue and girl with the bow in her hair, both standing outside the open door marked "colored entrance" are. The woman in red, walking away from the "colored entrance" is not.

... and the image, in its utter normalcy, forces the mind to think in those terms; those terms that were so normal then and so alien now; those terms that implicitly equated race with levels of purity and cleanliness. I would so much more like to change the sign to read as my unconscious initially read it: "COLORADO," but that is not what it says, and that is not was it - and the whole system of systematized and banalized malevalence that also spawned the KKK, cross burnings, church bombings, and (now) decades of post-desegregation White Southern butthurt - want us to think, in simple terms of "white" and "colored."

And so I go back and read "COLORED ENTRANCE," and I see one of the many simple, everyday evils that was Segregation. Seeing this Black woman and girl calmly and normally going about their business, I am reminded of the implicit hypocrisy and privilege inherent in statements made by Barbour and other old Southern Whites. And I am reminded of another part of American history - my history, despite having no close Southern roots - to which the myth of "American Exceptionalism" provides a tempting exit, paved (as shown by Barbour) with white-washed history and denial of any social responsibility.

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