More Angry Young (Southern) White Men

They were never just young. Not the disaffected youths with cigarettes dangling from their lips: James Dean and company whose coolness had to do with disaffection, disengagement, a superior stance that would not grub nor lord it over.

     This anger goes back decades. Here’s the prompt: I’ve been reading the start of a truly magnum opus: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. She herself comes from a family that migrated north during the three decades–from World War I through World War II–called “The Great Migration.”

     The initial chapters depict from her many interviews actual scarifying occurrences in the rural south: terrorizing of black men (not the old ones) by white men. The sounds of a beating in the woods heard by two black boys, a beating so intense that it leads to death, with a break in the middle for the victim to pray. A community strictly segregated that builds its white children a gothic new school and does nothing (as a community) when the black school burns down. A man and his children on the sidewalk of a small Southern town: when a group of white men approach, the black father and two older sons step off the sidewalk, but the youngest black boy, his head in a book, grazes the side of one white man and is “roughed up.” Even though the father and boy himself apologize profusely.

     Though I never saw such horrors, the air was heavy with the division–Charleston, South Carolina, treated its black residents with greater restraint than did some other Southern towns. But white male anger invaded my home in the form of my father’s virulent racism.

     Recently on a trip back to Charleston, I read newspaper accounts of a hospital workers strike, the May after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot–1968. These black hospital workers were paid a much lower wage than their white counterparts. Their strike virtually closed down the Medical College of South Carolina hospital. Not the only one in the city, but the major one. The first-day march was led by Ralph Abernathy and Coretta Scott King. After a number of weeks, the hospital settled on equal pay for equal work.

     But that was later, after the Great Migration which created the huge black communities in Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, and on up the east coast to New York. And yes, in California. Still segregated were most of these communities, facing the ugly housing “wars” of the 1950s and 60s, the urban “renewal” with its fortress high-rises where dreams went to die. And on up to the present with our own, homegrown, Minnesota achievement gap. We too had a strong black community in the Rondo neighborhood of Saint Paul, but for many reasons, including the building of Highway 94 right through it, the community faltered and the residents moved elsewhere.

     I’ve been musing on this white male anger, the kind that with impunity made life a horror for black boys and men. Here are some recent thoughts: in its first incarnation, this anger erupted when federal troops left the South after “Reconstruction,” essentially giving control of purse and politics back to white men. The Civil War decimated Southern commerce and agriculture in ways that northerners who didn’t see later wars in Europe, Asia, could not possibly understand. Even when I left the South in the 1960s, it was still poorer than most northern states. And by then the huge exodus of black people had come and gone.

     Losing the Civil War meant losing control of a “servant” population–the former slaves were freed, and for the period of Reconstruction, many were elected into political positions. Then the lid of hatred closed down with a snap, and the long grinding years of Southern poverty began in earnest. Southern agriculture had always been hard on the soil. The boll weevil did the rest. James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men shows precisely how absolutely dirt poor southern whites who depended on some kind of farming could be. Shacks with holes in the floor, rough sheets, “tatters” and “greens” for food. Molasses the sweetening.

     Resentment against the Civil War’s loss, the burning of Atlanta, the burning of homes and plantations (a visit to Middleton Plantation recently impressed on me the current owners’ passion for regathering what Northern troops had dispersed, and that was virtually 150 years ago).

     When one distinctly different set of people “own” another, and then debase them, a complicated set of feints and blinds get established. These solidify into unquestioned superiority, privilege, and “Right.” Especially when the supposedly superior lose almost everything and continue to feel that loss–chained to their poor land with no possible escape–then anger builds up to a blinding intensity. Everything gets swept into its vortex: Christianity, inviolate Southern white maidenhood, the command of a public sidewalk, male privilege. White male privilege. No wonder millions of black left the south.

     The thought has flitted through on occasion that President Barack Obama’s obvious blackness–well, it acts as a goad. And because many white people hold in their innermost hearts a caveat against “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator” etc, there mounts up a rage against government in general. Because it is no longer “cool” to rant and rave against black people, let’s be blunt and say black men, this rage and utter resistance to “government,” to “compromise” with the other party in U.S. politics drapes itself  in the early symbols of American resistance: And we have the Tea Party.

     The South has been familiar for years with white political movements that co-opted workers (whites) by white-washing the true intent of their goals. It’s a simple psychological ploy: drum up hatred of those outside the pale, and then focus that hatred away from one’s own best interests and into a single rallying call against “Race.” Today the call is against “government.” But the blindness induced is the same. What a onetime poor white textile worker in the South and today’s retired white Iowa sales clerk have in common is that they are blinded to what is in their best interest.

     I have to hope that the hugeness and variety of the U.S. today can ultimately trounce the hatred and throw out the do-nothings, the recalcitrant legislators (we have plenty in Minnesota) and elect decent compromisers who want to return politics to functioning for the greater good of all.



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