A small dagger pierced my heart when my wife told me our 27-year-old son's reaction to the news story she had emailed him about the n-word-using police commissioner in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. He emailed her back: "Wow. Way up there."
I took that to mean that our fifth-generation native-Texan son had internalized the lesson preached to him his entire life by film and literature, that vile racism is a mainly Southern phenomenon. As a person who grew up in the North myself, including a stint of several years in New Hampshire, I know way better.
I wrote here a long time ago about mean-spirited racial segregation and racism I experienced first-hand growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Home to the University of Michigan since 1837, Ann Arbor when I was growing up there referred to itself immodestly as the "Athens of the Middle West." In the 1960s people from Ann Arbor were on the Freedom Rider buses that crashed into Jim Crow Dixie.
See also: Crossing Division Street
No one ever discussed the fact that Ann Arbor at that time was still rigidly segregated, chopped in half by a thoroughfare called Division Street. A black male who crossed that street without a rake or a shovel in his hand had trouble ahead with the cops for sure. Think of our own "Park Cities" district but all over town.
And New Hampshire! I lived there, too. When I was a kid, New Hampshire in particular, New England in general, gave whole new meaning to the word redneck. Still does, apparently. New Hampshire hicks were racist about French Canadians, and that was just a warm-up for their feelings about U.S. ethnic minorities.
I get a little uncomfortable trying to compare different specific brands of American racism by region, just because it seems like debating how many devils can dance on the head of a pin. Racism is racism. But I can say this. There is an appreciable difference between the racism of Southern whites who have lived around lots of black people and isolated rural Northern whites who have not. At least the Southern whites are not physically terrified by the sight of black people on their TV sets. That's what that police official in New Hampshire expressed.
The exact quote as reported in a local newspaper was, "No, I don't watch TV because every time I turn it on all I see is that fucking nigger" -- a reference to the president of the United States.
Wolfeboro, New Hampshire Police Commissioner Robert Copeland's problem -- the issue that has now cost him his job, made a goat of him internationally, humiliated his family and sullied the name of his community -- was seeing the president on television. That's a pretty big price to pay for a problem he should have been able to resolve with a couple sessions of group therapy.
It's probably not a truly or entirely regional phenomenon now. I think there are lots of white people here in Texas, in the Old South, the Upper Midwest, New England, the Pacific Northwest, Manhattan, all over, who have managed to live until this late date in environments where they have experienced very little diversity. The particular aspect of diversity they have missed -- and the one that seems to get to them when they turn on their TV sets and see the first family -- is the one in which a black person occupies a position of higher social status than their own. Then it's off to the Wiggy Ward for some of them.
Does the New Hampshire guy have the right to slosh down a couple drinks and use the N-word about the president in an overheard private conversation? Absolutely. Hey, this is America! Does the owner of a professional sports franchise have the right to just keep saying more and more racist stuff to reporters. Totally!
But then the rest of us as Americans have the right to vow never to by a ticket from that team owner and to begin turning away from the whole sport, the more it begins to look like a racist plantation system. Don't want us to stop buying tickets? Well, hey, how about kicking the bastard out of the league for us? The league has the right to do that. This is America!
Personal disclosure: I have a vacation trip planned for New Hampshire in a week, with a bunch of non-refundable reservations. When my wife emailed me that, "I sure hate to be spending money in New Hampshire," I said nothing. Look, they made the old bastard resign. I respect Wolfeboro for that. Plus, we're not going to Wolfeboro. Plus, the reservations are not refundable.
Plus this: I still love New Hampshire. I have a deep affection for the people there. The other side of all that isolation and xenophobia is a flinty self-reliance and deep-rooted sense of personal dignity. Remember that people in New Hampshire turned that guy out of office. People sure are complicated, are they not?
The racism most of us need to worry about anyway is right there in the mirror looking back at us. Nobody has a monopoly. Nobody even has the edge as far as I can tell. If we start with ourselves, we're taking the bull by the horns.
But I have to say this piece, as well: the former Confederate states need to shake off the whole notion that they carry a burden here not shared pretty equally by the Union. We all get why that story persists. It does reflect important history, and we are products of that history.
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But this isn't history. This is now. Right now as a result of more recent history, even with our stubborn pockets of mono-ethnic separatism, there's a hell of a lot more true diversity going on in Texas than there is in New Hampshire. Or Oregon. Or TriBeCa, for that matter.
The South should be proud of the strides it has accomplished and the wisdom gained since the civil rights movement days, and it needs to be confidant in its ability to export some of that wisdom northward when needed. Speaking as a Yankee carpetbagger myself, I feel I have the right to say that Yankees need to have their chains yanked about racism every once in a while just like everybody else.
In the end what counts is living together, being together, knowing each other, turning on the TV and seeing people who look like all of us. When what feels normal and appropriate, we don't need any more group therapy.
My son doesn't live in Texas any more. I just want him to know it's a good a place to come home to. Not perfect. Not there yet. But closer than it used to be and a lot closer than New Hampshire any old day.