Trent Lott has moved back down the ladder from Senate majority leader to ordinary senator, and the fuss over his remarks at that now infamous birthday party has largely died down. But what hasn't changed is that there are a great number of white Southerners whose views on race aren't as easily categorized as the media coverage suggested. In other words, it's not as simple as asking: Are you a racist or aren't you? One reason that it's more complicated is that we Southerners have a different history than the rest of the country, and this history still influences how we view events. I remember, at age 9, staying up until 2 o'clock in the morning listening to the 1948 election returns with my father, and feeling shock and disappointment that our South Carolina governor was carrying so few states in his presidential bid. Unlike my father, I thought Strom Thurmond would win. Only later did I understand the civil rights issues involved.
As a white man raised in an atmosphere of segregation and loyalty to Dixie, I have felt pride when our frequently besieged region has thumbed its nose at meddlesome Northern whites -- Yankees, we call them. Even today, after having lived in Washington for 35 years, I generally disregard Yankees' self-righteous attitudes toward the South when it comes to race. They always come across as most progressive in their racial attitudes when they're discussing the South -- that horrible Confederate flag, Lott's terrible remarks. But when the issue touches their own lives -- affirmative action, busing inner-city kids into suburban schools -- Northern whites seldom react very differently from Southern whites.
I have a more difficult time, however, dismissing criticism of the South by blacks, especially friends and acquaintances whose views have been shaped by their experiences. One black friend told me about his aunt, in the 1940s in then-segregated Baltimore, being denied entry to a hospital emergency room. Another recounted the hardships of growing up poor in a time and place -- South Carolina in the early 1960s -- where most jobs were reserved, by law as well as custom, for whites. Another spoke of the lengths his family went to to protect him from the racist customs of the day. "Why don't we go to that theater?" he would ask his mother. "Oh, we don't like that one," she would answer, not telling her child that he wasn't allowed to go there because of his race. Then, every few months, his family would travel from segregated Washington to integrated New York City to attend plays and movies. These, of course, are only a minuscule representation -- and hardly the worst -- of the oppressive conditions that African Americans have endured in the South.
More recently, a black friend expressed his resentment over the Confederate flag, and what could I say? I mumbled something about the flag as a symbol of Southern distinctiveness, but I couldn't suggest that blacks should let bygones be bygones. We white Southerners remember every misdeed of the Union Army in the War for Southern Independence that occurred more than 130 years ago. (When my father died in 1998, an editorial in our local paper noted that his great-grandfather's home had been burned by Gen. Sherman.) My black friend also commented that, growing up in South Carolina, he and his fellow blacks never identified with the song "Dixie," our regional anthem that still stirs my heart. "It wasn't about us," he said, reminding me that so much of what we Southerners call history is white history -- perhaps the truth, but not the whole truth.
These friendships make it even more painful for me to recall my own participation in the South's racial customs. Growing up, I called African American adults by their first names and reserved "sir" and "ma'am," titles of respect still ubiquitous in the region, for whites, never blacks. And in 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled that Southern schools must integrate, I was in high school and became caught up in the spirit of resistance that swept South Carolina and most of the rest of Dixie. Even while a student at Harvard, I steadfastly stood my ground against the Northern liberals surrounding me, stoutly defending segregation and the South's role in the Civil War.
Later, from 1967 through 1972, I served as legislative assistant to Sen. Thurmond. In 1970, I took a six-month leave of absence to manage the South Carolina gubernatorial campaign of Republican congressman Albert Watson. I was still a segregationist, comfortable with the racial politics of both Thurmond and Watson. Only months before the campaign started, Watson gave an anti-school integration speech in the small town of Lamar. Several days later, segregationists turned over a school bus bringing black children to Lamar's formerly white school.
Today, I cringe when I think of that campaign, not so much because of anything I remember Watson saying -- he had plenty of company in Deep South politics at that time -- but because I remember what I did. The campaign, with my knowledge and participation, stressed opposition to school integration and to "the bloc vote," i.e., black voters who voted heavily Democratic. The race issue was the major focus of the campaign, one we used in television spots and more graphically in leaflets mailed anonymously to white voters in precincts that George Wallace had carried in the 1968 presidential election. Despite our best efforts, moderate Democrat John C. West won.
Over time, like the region that I come from and still write about, I have changed. But it didn't happen all at once, like being saved at a revival and becoming a born-again Christian. The old beliefs got eroded, usually after I got to know African Americans. After moving to Washington in the late 1960s, I lived with my young family on Capitol Hill, where our children attended the local Montessori School, which was about 40 percent black. The school was a cooperative and we became friendly with many black parents.
Their levels of education were similar to our own, as were their aspirations for their children. I also encountered black people -- not many, but a few -- at the church we attended, and later, as professional colleagues. Today, most of my friends -- like those of most white people -- are white, but I also have good friends whose company I enjoy and whose opinions I respect who are black.
Getting to know black people made it difficult to sustain a view that consigns them to an inferior status. By degrees, the old segregationist became a believer in a free and fair society, though not necessarily a bleeding-heart liberal. My experience is not a rarity for white Southerners.
Most Southern whites, like those in the rest of the country, have changed their racial views substantially over the years. However, the amount of transition is relative, and some of our best friends, as it were, still harbor, if not hostility toward African Americans, then insensitivity to their understandable concerns.
These differing degrees of change on racial matters can, as Lott well knows, cause problems even for those of us who believe we have made substantial strides away from our segregationist past. Thus, most Southerners have known so many "racists" that we don't even use the word. "They" have been our friends, our relatives and even ourselves. Some have changed a lot, others not very much. When we hear someone utter a racist remark, we seldom argue about it -- that wouldn't be polite. We try to say something to smooth over the disagreement, or more often, we diplomatically change the subject.
Moreover, white Southerners seldom shun people who would be personae non gratae in the rest of the country. In my home state, for example, many people have a very negative reaction to the views -- religious and political -- of Bob Jones University, but they don't reject a candidate who makes a speech there. BJU is just part of the state's political landscape.
This leaves many of us, especially those who no longer live down South but maintain close ties with family and friends there, trying to straddle a gap between the two worlds. We have one foot in our new and better understanding of humanity, one that leads us to more enlightened attitudes on racially charged political issues and -- perhaps more importantly -- lets us know and be friends with people across racial lines. The other foot, however, is still in Dixie, enjoying the warmth and friendship of family and friends, and indeed, the identity of being a Southerner. It is a conflict we live with, sometimes well, sometimes not so well.