Jim Crow Racism in a “Post-Racial” U.S.

The New York Times has yet another story on how segregated life often is in this supposedly “post-racial” United States. The reporter describes the “tradition” of a white prom and a black prom in Georgia Affirms States' RightsGeorgia’s Montgomery County (Creative Commons License photo credit: Caveman 92223), an area with several small towns:

The future looms large. But for the 54 students in the class of 2009 at Montgomery County High School, so, too, does the past. On May 1… the white students held their senior prom. And the following night … the black students had theirs.

This is not a new reality. This has mostly been the pattern now for nearly three decades of “school desegregation.” And this town is not unusual, for Jim Crow proms are still the rule in various small-town areas of the South. In this county the proms are regularly referred to by students and parents as “the black-folks prom” and “the white-folks prom.” The driving force, not surprisingly, is white not black:

All students are welcome at the black prom, though generally few if any white students show up. The white prom, students say, remains governed by a largely unspoken set of rules about who may come.

The Times reporter portrays the situation as one of white parents’ fully in control of the Jim Crow reality:

Black and white students also date one another, though often out of sight of judgmental parents. “Most of the students do want to have a prom together,” says Terra Fountain, a white 18-year-old who graduated from Montgomery County High School.

And a white male senior is quoted thus:

“I have as many black friends as I do white friends. We do everything else together. We hang out. We play sports together. We go to class together. I don’t think anybody at our school is racist.” Trying to explain the continued existence of segregated proms, Edge falls back on the same reasoning offered by a number of white students and their parents. “It’s how it’s always been,” he says. “It’s just a tradition.”

Well, there are no young whites there who are racist, even as they collaborate in old racist stuff. Reminds me of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism without Racists book and data from interviewing whites.

Interestingly, seven black high school students did go to this year’s white prom, and watched from the sidelines. After the ceremonies, they were ushered out with other bystanders. They went to a restaurant and talked about the prom segregation. The black students, according to the reporter, talked about

whether white parents really believed that by keeping black people out of the prom, it would keep them out of their children’s lives . . . . And finally, more somberly, they questioned their white friends’ professed helplessness in the face of their parents’ prejudice (“You’re 18 years old! You’re old enough to smoke, drive, do whatever else you want to. Why aren’t you able to step up and say, ‘I want to have my senior prom with the people I’m graduating with?’ ”). . . . Angel checked her cellphone to see if any of the white kids had texted from inside their prom. They hadn’t. Angel shrugged. “I really don’t understand,” she said. “Because I’m thinking that these people love me and I love them, but I don’t know.

This Jim Crow reality seems to be about a lot more than some white parents’ desires for their children to go to separate proms. There is nearly complete white student conformity to the Jim Crow “tradition,” yet the reporter portrays the youth as being quite different in their racial interactions (they have “black friends”) from their parents. But, for three decades now, each new group of parents (which includes many who were once students at this “integrated” high school) has maintained the old Jim Crow tradition. And then there is the likely segregated reality of much else that goes on in this town, and many others across the South. One can step into areas like this in numerous southern states where everyday life in many ways does seem more like the 1950s than like 2009 is supposed to be — as my graduate students from these areas regularly report. (Hint for grad students and other researchers: We really need some in-depth studies of everyday Jim-Crowing in these small towns across the South today, and probably in other US areas as well.)

There is also some naïveté in the black students viewing white students as liking, even “loving” them. Is this a case of many white young people just being “nice” in public frontstage settings, and professing not to be racist, and yet more like most of their parents – that is, more openly racist — in the private backstage settings?

And then, of course, there is the deepest aspect of the old white racial frame – white fears of black sexuality, as a “threat” especially to white girls and women. Proms have great symbolic significance when it comes to teenage sexuality.

What do you make of this?