Prom Night in the Deep South

Proms serve as a strong indicator of the racial tension in “post racial” America.  The Saturday April 27, 2013 edition of the New York Times includes a news story about a small, rural town—Abbeville, Georgia—and Wilcox County High School where some students are challenging the tradition of the a segregated prom.

A student, Mareshia Rucker who is African American, watched from a crouched position in a car as her White classmates attended the White Prom. Like all of the Black students she was not invited. From her hidden position in the car she thought about this:

“These are people I see in class every day… What’s wrong with dancing with me, just because I have more pigment?”

The excuses given for continuing segregated proms, mostly from the white parents, was that the students had a different taste for their music, dancing and tradition. New York Times columnist Robbie Brown explains it this way:

“But locally, the separate proms have defenders. White residents said members of the two races had different tastes in music and dancing, and different traditions: the junior class plans the white prom, and the senior class plans the black prom.”

At Wilcox County High School since integration took place the proms have been organized as private, invitation-only events that are funded and sponsored by the students parents and not the school.

A week after the White Only Prom took place a small group of Blacks and White students raised funds, organized and held an integrated prom. The school board has said it will soon vote on a new structure for proms, sponsored by the school and not parents.


In this day and age, supposedly a “post racial America,” some argue that race-based proms are an enigma.  But are they really?  Since the 1970s public schools have re-segregated.


In Charleston, Mississippi located in the heart of what is known as THE DELTA with a total population of less than 3,000 and a median household income of less than $21,000, Charleston garnered national attention in 1997 and again in 2008 when the issue of segregated senior proms was in the news.

The national spotlight for Charleston came because the academy award winning African American actor Morgan Freeman offered to fund the school’s prom in 1997—but only if it were open to both Black and White students.  His offer was turned down by the school board and white parents (the Black population outnumbers the White population in Charleston).

Some 10 years later Freeman made the offer again and this time it was not only accepted but the Canadian documentary film crew headed by Canadian filmmaker Paul Saltzman was interested in making a documentary, Prom Night in Mississippi.

Like other short-lived celebrations (a national championship one season; a last place finish the next), one has to wonder in this era of post-racialism how deep is social segregation?  As the illustration below reveals, even when school systems are integrated the proms remain segregated.

(Image source)




Racial segregation in the Deep South did not end with the US Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Topeka, Kansas in 1954.



In the BROWN decision Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing for the majority, said this:

Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system… We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.


Across the entire history of the US, the majority of African Americans attended inferior grammar and secondary schools.  Those seeking to attend white schools in the north, including colleges and universities, were often denied access.  Some schools in the north desegregated voluntarily and in some cases early in the 20th Century, but schools in the south resisted integration severely and systematically.  In some cases movements to integrate even under court order erupted into violence.  The integration of Central High School in Little Rock Arkansas was so contentious that President Eisenhower sent National Guard troops to protect the eight young men and women attempting to attend school there.  Similarly, when James Meredith attempted to integrate the University of Mississippi a near war broke out forcing President Kennedy to send in armed troops.  Governor Ross Barnett closed the Ole Miss campus in response.


The Brown v. the Board of Topeka, Kansas decision (see above) which guaranteed African Americans the right to attend any public school was intended to offer access to the institution of education in the United States.  Yet, it has been only partially successful.  First of all the Supreme Court decision was resisted.  It was intensely resisted in the Deep South so much so that many southern school districts were not integrated until the early 1970s, nearly 20 years after the historic decision.  The most severe resistance to school integration was in Mississippi.  The resistance movement resulted in the development of a set of private, often religiously affiliated, academies, colloquially referred to as “seg academies” which acknowledges that they were and continue to be entirely segregated; as privately funded schools they are not required by the Brown decision to integrate nor are they required to meet performance standards or be accredited.


Sara Carr’s article in the December 2012 Atlantic   captures the raison d’être of the segregation academies that sprang up in states like Mississippi, Alabama and all across the south after the Brown v. Board 1954 decision:

“These schools were started to keep white children away from blacks,” said Wade Overstreet, a Mississippi native and the program coordinator at the national advocacy organization Parents for Public Schools. “They’ve done an amazing job of it.”


The unintended consequences from this self imposed segregation for Whites has not been seriously addressed in that those White kids from the post-Brown segregated south were stymied in their education resulting in their inability to attend elite northern liberal arts colleges.  Why?  Because by setting up “seg academies” that did not have to adhere to performance standards the perception of these schools outside of the south is that they were not delivering the type of college prep education that would be required to be successful in college.  This perception is further exacerbated by the overall impression from the Civil Rights Movement that southerners are “backward.”




Incredibly, forms of deep social segregation continue today no place more clearly than in the school system that long-standing U.S. tradition of the SENIOR PROM!


The point of these illustrations is that its not simply the integration of schools that will produce integrated proms.  The concerns that White parents expressed in the 1960s and 1970s about their children sitting in desks next to Black children—which I would argue was really a concern about integrated friendships and heaven forbid integrated romances—has taken on a life of its own through the debate and struggle around the prom.


My theoretical underpinning for “Prom Night in the Deep South” is Joe Feagin’s WHITE RACIAL FRAME, in which he says (129):

“Even when whites do racist performances targeting Americans of color, the old racial frame accents that they, as whites, still should be considered to be “good” and “decent” people.  The dominant racial frame not only provides the fodder for whites’ racist performances, but also the means of excusing those performances.”   Such back-stage actions are interpreted as harmless, as “no big deal,” and often as just good interactive “fun.”


This frame allows White parents and school board members in the Deep South to see themselves as “better” than their kids and other White students viz., their Black schoolmates and, therefore, worthy of still holding the coveted segregated prom.

Further, the south as a whole was stunted by segregation which requires the setting up and running of a two-tiered system—politically, economically, socially, recreationally, with regards to health care and education— that proved to be not only expensive but also backward (Smith and Hattery 2010).  And, since neighborhoods, communities, whole sectors of large cities are segregated it stands to reason that schools will continue along this path as well (Hattery & Smith 2012).

And, as long as banks continue the practice of “redlining” as long as differential access to home mortgages exists and as long as major legal statutes against social segregation are not upheld, we will continue to see pockets of segregation across the US and in the south.

Even in schools where White and Black students sit next to each other in class, the over-arching concern that White parents have about love across racial lines is the driving factor behind the move to keep proms segregated.


References (linked above):

Brown, Robbie. 2013. “A Racial Divide Closes as Students Step Up.” New York Times, April 26th

Carr, Sarah, 2012, “In Southern Towns, ‘Segregation Academies’ Are Still Going Strong.” The Atlantic (December 13th)

Feagin, Joe R. 2010. The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing. NY: Routledge

Hattery, Angela J. and Earl Smith Smith, 2012, African American Families Today: Myths and Realities, (Rowman & Littlefield).

Hattery, Angela J., Earl Smith, 2007, “Social Stratification in the New/Old South: The Influences of Racial Segregation on Social Class in the Deep South.” Journal of Poverty Research 11(1), 55-81.

Orfield, Gary. 2011. “Segregated and Satisfied in the Southland?” Huffington Post

Smith, Earl and Angela J. Hattery, 2010, “Cultural Contradictions in the South.” Mississippi Quarterly Vol 63 (2): 145-166.

Rubin, Richard. 2003. Confederacy of Silence: A True Tale of the New Old South. NY: Atria Books.

* * *

~ Guest blogger Earl Smith is Professor Emeritus, Sociology, Wake Forest University.

Gate Keeping in the Halls of Science: The Continuing Significance of Race (Part 2)

[Prof. Smith continues his previous discussion]

There are three consequences that immediately appear as a result of this type of bias in academe:

(1) an applicant for a faculty position is likely to be asked if they have been the recipient of federal grant funds, as a initial condition of employment, which is ideal for both preparing a 5-year plan for scholarship as well as bringing the highly valuable “in-directs” ($$$) into the department; if not, they are less likely to be offered a job than a candidate who already has secured federal funding. If African Americans are less likely than their White counterparts to exit graduate school and/or a post-doc with grants, they will be less likely to be offered tenure line positions.

(2) often securing external funding is a condition for tenure and promotion to associate; thus discrimination at the level of funding agencies translates into lower rates of tenure and promotion for African American scholars, a fact that has been proven time and time again.

(3) simultaneously, with the majority of departments in all types of institutions from “research one” to “liberal arts colleges” require scholarly publications for tenure and promotion, especially promotion to full. Assistant professors without funded research projects will have a far more difficult time conducting the research and collecting the data that is a necessary precursor to scholarly publications. Thus, discrimination in the awarding of federal grants is most definitely a cause of the lower rates of promotion of faculty of color, especially African Americans, and women. Of course this only exacerbates the proverbial double standard: that minorities and women have to be “twice as good” which is also well documented.

(4) A fourth consequence can be added: the cycle continues: discrimination in awards to pre-docs, post-docs and assistant professors leaves African American scholars without a “track record” of previous awards that leaves them significantly disadvantaged in future competitions for funding awards.

Finally, this cited study allows me to note that the Color Line remains problematic in so called “post-racial” America.

Earl Smith, PhD
Professor of American Ethnic Studies
and Sociology
Wake Forest University

Gate Keeping in the Halls of Science: The Continuing Significance of Race (Part 1)

Question: Does the skin color or name of a scientist who may be the discoverer of a cure for breast cancer, diabetes, or sickle cell matter when it comes to being awarded a monetary grant from US funding agencies who on average receive billions of taxpayers dollars each and every year? (NIH = $31.2 billion and NSF=$6.8 billion)

The answer to the question is yes for both skin color and one’s name. And, although the story being discussed here does not go in this direction I am going to say, based on solid evidence presented elsewhere that the same pertains to women scientists who apply for these public funds. (See also here)

In the carefully worded press release accompanying the results of the new study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and published in the August 19th issue of Science we learn that:

Though information on race and ethnicity of the applicant is not available to reviewers, an applicant’s name or institutional affiliation included in the application biography can be suggestive of their race or ethnicity.

I was not totally surprised to learn last week that Blacks and others are not treated equally by the agencies that fund scientific research. Any scholar who has applied for a federal grant knows this. Any scholar who has sat on a grant panel knows this; applicants with some qualities receive preferential treatment whereas others face discrimination.

In a review of some 80,000 grant application across a seven year period grant applications submitted to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a US public funding agency—who we recently learned has been giving research money to Chinese scientists in China—the research scholars found that the funding agency was biased against African Americans who submitted grant applications. Asian and Hispanic applicants also faced discrimination but not to the same degree as the biases against Blacks. And, although the NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins notes that “the situation is not acceptable” and that “the data is troubling” he offers no viable solution for ending this long-standing problem.

I would imagine that Collins, a well-paid public servant whose career is “inside the beltway,” knows the fate of another director of a government agency, namely the Bureau of Justice Statistics ex-Director Lawrence Greenfeld. Greenfeld, appointed to the Bureau of Justice Statistics by George Bush after the 2000 presidential elections, was fired when he would not bury a factually accurate and devastating report on “racial profiling.” Perhaps Collins feared the same if he were to publicly acknowledge what he must have known was true all along, that there were discriminatory patterns in funding with regards to race, ethnicity and gender?

What does all this mean? For years scholars from various academic disciplines have been conducting empirical studies showing the extent of racial discrimination, including research by Professor Joe Feagin who has been warning us that systematic racism persists in the USA. In book after book and essay after essay he notes that these current forms of racial discrimination are not just individual v. individual hostilities but more so institutional racism. In one paper published in the sociology journal American Sociological Review (Vol. 56, No. 1., Feb. 1991: pp. 101-116), Feagin points to a very common form of public discrimination against African Americans today: poor service at restaurants. He illustrates with a story: the couple waited and waited and waited and even though the restaurant was near empty they still waited to be seated. There were no back doors to be entered, no signs (“No Negroes”), no outdoor water hose to get a drink of water from and no take-out only service. Simply, in modern terms, no service at all! As this example applies to the recent paper in Science, we see that trained scientists serving in public service to tax-funded granting agencies take it upon themselves to bar African Americans professionals who are seeking funding for their research projects.

What could further demonstrate the “Continuing Significance of Race” in American society today? Race matters, and no amount of hollow apologies by the administrators at NIH will change this as they, too, must have known that without filling the science and technology pipelines there will be no progress on any level or in any corner of academe. In short, discrimination in funding leads to gaps in PhD completion, hiring into tenure track lines, and ultimately to promotion.

The former head of the National Science Foundation and President of Occidental College, Dr. John Slaughter put it differently –understanding the vital importance of the “pipeline”–but it points to the problem back then and it’s importance today: “if you want Black faculty, you need Black students.” The point being that the pipeline has to begin with the quality education of all students and continue through secondary school up through advanced studies. It is no wonder that in the Science article the authors point to the probable differences in training, mentoring, access to pre-doctoral research projects, etc., as one possible explanation for differences in grant awards by race. Yet they make it clear that this is not the only cause and that racial identification coding is rampant in NIH review panels.

What this means is that the results of the study Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards demonstrate the following: differential access, bias, gate keeping in science, and racism all remain a problem in the arena of scientific discovery and will not change until the administrators of the agencies want to make significant changes; until there is pressure to define discrimination as costly and transformation as being in the individual and more importantly institutional self-interests of the administrators and agencies.

In terms of consequences and outcomes, first off let me note that this underscores the weakness in the sacredness of the double blind review process in science, letting us know that the “Matthew Effect”—coined by Merton and Zuckerman– in science is alive and well. (See Merton, Robert K. (1968). “The Matthew Effect in Science” (pdf), Science 159 (3810), 56–63; and Merton, Robert K. (1988). “The Matthew Effect in Science, II: Cumulative advantage and the symbolism of intellectual property” (pdf), ISIS 79, 606–623.

Earl Smith, PhD
Professor of American Ethnic Studies and Sociology
Wake Forest University

Light Skin, Light Jail Time? A Dissent to Some Prominent Research

Anyone studying issues of race, ethnicity and incarceration knows that African American men, all things being equal, receive longer sentences for similarly situated crimes than White men (Uggen, Wakefield, and Western 2005). This is especially true in crimes of violence when the victims are White (Radelet and Pierce 2010). So it does not come as a surprise that a recent social science paper which identifies data that there are additional negative consequences for Blacks, separate from Whites, in the criminal justice system based on their skin color, has been receiving positive endorsements.

The paper entitled “The impact of light skin on prison time for black female offenders: a research note” appearing in The Social Science Journal, 48 (2011) 250–258 by Jill Viglione, Lance Hannon and Robert DeFina in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Villanova University has been praised in NewsOne, The Root, Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Sentencing Project Race & Justice News and most positive of all in thisonline blog: Racism Review.

Actually, “The impact of light skin on prison time for black female offenders” is an important paper in that it could have shown how the disparities in the US criminal justice system continues –based on the invidious distinction of skin color—and moved us beyond seeing things simply as “black and white,” had it not been for faulty science and methodology used in the research itself. For starters the researchers take at face value the coding system employed at the North Carolina prisons; coding light skinned African American women as “1”, and dark skinned African American women as “0.” Any empirical social scientist knows that extensive training of “coders” and reliability analysis must be performed before measures such as these are considered to be reliable. I see no evidence that either of these important aspects of data collection have been performed. Additionally, there is certainly widespread discussion of the complexities of color in the African American community—both discussions of it as a fact and of its impact on issues such as the restricted complexions represented in the media, in certain places of employment and so forth. Yet, most research on complexion also acknowledges that complexion occurs on a continuum. To represent it as “light” and “dark” based on a binary coding system is reductionist to the point of rendering the data potentially irrelevant.

There are, to be sure, major methodological and conceptual problems in the research that should have been addressed prior to praising the paper. For example, in the research by Thompson and Zingraff (1981), they point out that

sentence length is a product of status differentials between the offender and the victim Given: 100 white robbery offenders and 100 black robbery offenders sentenced in 1973 and matched on prior record and total number of charges intra-racial incidence of robbery in 1973: 93% of black offender robberies and 52% of white offender robberies sentence lengths (a) black offender/white victims 20 years; (b) white offender/white victim 16 years; (c) black offender/black victim 10 years; (d) white offender/black victim, 5 years. The average sentence lengths are computed as follows:
black offenders (93 X 10) + (7 X 20)/100= 10.7 years ;
white offenders (52X16)+ (48X5)/100=10.7years

The example shows that even when 100% of the judges discriminate, researchers who do not account for victim characteristics may conclude that no discrimination exists. Recent research shows similar patterns in sentencing still exist today (Tonry 2011).

In addition to the severe methodological problems plaguing this paper “The impact of light skin on prison time for black female offenders,” in order to demonstrate this type of wide-spread discrimination based on color, rather than race, would require the authors to demonstrate collusion of benefit afforded to light skinned African Americans by arresting police officers, prosecutors, district attorneys and judges (juries) relative to darker skinned African Americans separate from the demonstrated discrimination based on race (White versus Black). The question becomes: why would this be in light of disparities in sentencing (White v. Black) that have been in existence since the formal establishment of the convict leasing system (Oshinsky 1997).

Lastly, the praise for this paper focuses almost exclusively on its ability to demonstrate the persistence of color bias inside the African American community, yet there is no evidence that the “coders” of the data are in fact African American! It is unfortunate that this paper suffers from fatal methodological flaws, as the topic, as stated above, would allow us to explore the nuances of race and the criminal justice system beyond “black and white.” It is also unfortunate that so many who praised the paper mistake it for a contribution to the “colorism” research and debates that have been a positive factor in disentangling the intra race/ethnic discrimination in the African American community that has been around ever since– If you’re black, get back. If you’re brown, stick around If you’re light, you’re alright (Hochschild and Weaver 2007; Keith and Herring 1991), also see the film by Spike Lee entitled: School Daze.

It is even more unfortunate that so many noted scholars were so quick to praise the paper and circulate it to a wider readership without engaging in the critical assessment of the methodsthat reveals flaws that lead this reader at least to conclude that the findings are irrelevant and can’t be substantiated unless more rigorous methods and reliability analysis are applied and performed.

Hochschild, Jennifer and V. Weaver. 2007. “The skin color paradox and the American racial order.” Social Forces 86:643-670.
Keith, Vera and Cedric Herring. 1991. “Skin tone stratification in the black community.” The American Journal of Sociology 97:760-778.
Oshinsky, David M. 1997. Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. New York: The Free Press.
Radelet, Michael L. and Glenn L. Pierce. 2010. “Race and Death Sentencing in North Carolina -1980-2007.” Manuscript, Colorado Springs.
Thomson, Randall and Matthew T. Zingraff. 1981. “Detecting Sentencing Disparity: Some Problems and Evidence ” American Journal of Sociology 86:869-880.
Tonry, Michael. 2011. Punishing Race. New York: OXford.
Uggen, Christopher, Sara Wakefield, and Bruce Western. 2005. “Work and Family Perspectives on Reentry ” Pp. 209-243 in Prisoner Reentry and Crime in America, edited by J. Travis and C. Visher. New York: Cambridge.

Dr. Earl Smith is professor of sociology at Wakeforest University.