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?


  1. mordy

    i was astounded by this piece. at what seemed like an attempt of explaining how schools could get away with this, the reporter explained that the prom is not organized by the school. i found that puzzling because i thought schools always governed their proms. worse though, the inference i drew was that this somehow made it all ok, because the story went on to explain that the school tried to organize the prom ‘once in 1995’ but it had a poor turnout. I am wondering if that was segregated too? or was the turnout poor because of integration?

    Something else that is very telling in this piece, and worth noting, is the photographs. The expressions of the two african-american girls is void of the joy that seems permanently etched on to the bright smiling faces of the white girls.

  2. The pictures are very telling. The white students are quick to profess that they’re “not racist”, but what else are they supposed to say? Of course they’re going to say that. The Black student who wondered at the White students’ professed helplessness to do anything about it … she hit the nail on the head. Saying the words “I’m not a racist” doesn’t make it so. Taking a stand and taking action does.

    I watched the audio slide show – just that couple of minutes show the disparity in thought in this town. Some quotes:

    White student: It don’t seem like a big deal around here. It’s not really about being racist. [snip] It’s not about what color you are, it’s about your attitude and how you present yourself, and how you take care of yourself.

    (What?! Hello, Missy – that’s racist!)

    Mother of a white student: This community and this school system is fine like it is. [snip] it’s worked for them thisaway, why change something that works? It’s not broken, the kids are perfectly fine with it.

    Black student: It really is hurtful. You think about how I go to school with you every day, 180 days out of the year, I sit beside you in class, [snip] at graduation, but I can’t go to prom with you for one night.

    –I wish color wouldn’t be such a big factor.

    –We can’t fix the prom until we fix the school.

    Hmm – big difference in perception, there.
    White folks, you’re deluding yourselves.
    Black folks, they aren’t your friends. Not really.

  3. sarah e

    The white students tell themselves that they are not “racist” because they have people in their lives that they like who are black. I’m sure that they spend time together, and go out together– but it’s not a healthy, real friendship since there are obvious boundaries that have nothing to do with friendship and everything to do with who is black and who is white.

    If they white students really wanted to be with their friends who are black, and it was really scary to defy their parents and the town, they could have just not gone to the white prom and attended the black prom with their friends.

    They also absolutely could have insisted that there just be one prom. I just don’t get it……Because it’s really never going to get better if nothing is done about it. If you aren’t “racist” then you don’t need to have a separate prom for the black folks.

    Sounds like the black senior at the end of the article is getting a rude awakening. My heart breaks for her, but cowbell wrote the truth: “they aren’t your friends. Not really”

  4. Kristen

    I cant believe my eyes! I read this entire article and most of the comments. The reason why we have so much racism in this world is because of opinions and assumptions like the ones above. The white people ain’t really our friends, they are privileged, they say they are our friends and they say they love us but its a front. Who are you…who are we to say these children don’t love one another? Skin color means nothing. Not all children have the same ignorant ass views as their racist parents. I have no idea what goes on in most homes around America. But I do know that I have raised my children to know that color means nothing. You don’t teach your kids that white people, Hispanics, blacks…whatever are bad…all your doing is breeding angry children that grow up to be angry and vindictive adults…which gets us to where we are now…keep teaching your kids that different races are bad we will have our own wars in this country…way worse than what we have now. One more thing…How is it even allowed for our children to share separate proms? It makes me sick to my stomach. I cant believe that I served this country, you don’t even love yourselves…why should anyone else?

  5. Kristen – You realize you spent more time condemning the commentor than obviously racist white students – if “equality” was in their hearts, they’d actually do more about the proms than shrugged them off with, “It’s tradition.”
    It amazes me how “wise” white people become when dealing with other folks’ racial sensibilities.

  6. mordy

    this article appeared to day in England’s Telegraph newspaper http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/5586617/Segregated-high-school-proms-divide-Georgias-students.html Though it references the NY Times article at the outset, it seems quite clear to me that the students must have felt a bit more open in sharing their thoughts with a reporter from an english newspaper. The feelings the black students express are much more severe than that of the NY Times. It also seems to deal with our racist past (and present) much more openly and harshly than the Times was willing to do.

  7. Joe

    Thanks, Mordy. One passage in the Telegraph article explains the context whites like to cover up:
    “In one infamous killing in early August 1930, a prominent 70-year old black politician was taken from his house by a mob and tortured to death. In 1944, after a one-day trial by an all white jury, a maid was convicted and later executed for shooting dead a man who was sexually assaulting her.”

    Notice who really has borne the brunt of most interracial rape in the US, too.

  8. Also, mordy, I don’t know of the students were more open with an English reporter – that could be the case don’t get me wrong – but, lets say they had been equally open with the NYTimes reporter, Americans have a hard to facing the truth. It wouldn’t surprise me if the students told the NYTimes reporter the very same things and it just wasn’t printed. That said, I’m not sure how black Britians feel about mainstream British society and newspapers, but I can certainly say British papers are more forthright in dealing with American racism than American papers.

  9. mordy

    @ #1Kstate, you could very well be right. I probably shouldn’t have worded my comment the way i did. The problem could very well be with the editorial tone the Times wanted to adopt. Likely it is a bit of both. I felt like the Times was significantly understating the effects of racism. The Telegraph certainly did not. I went back to read the Times article and the same student was featured in both. This issue might be better for a discussion in comparative journalism. Whatever its cause, i found the differences striking.


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