Once again, a cluster of idiots has been found doing something so backward as to garner the nation’s attention.  This week HBO aired “Prom Night in Mississippi”, a documentary of a small town that still holds segregated proms in 2008.  A native of Jackson, Mississsippi, I became aware of this film through the Facebook rantings of my former classmates, most of whom I have not seen in 20 years.  

If you have not heard the buzz about this film, Morgan Freeman lives in a small town in North Mississippi that, until last year, still held segregated proms. Two proms for two colors, as though there are no other shades between pasty white and dark chocolate brown. Starting in 1997, Mr. Freeman has offered to pay for this school’s prom if they would combine the tradition to one for all the students. It took eleven years before they accepted his offer.  There is more to the story and I highly recommend you see this film.

It is important to shine light on these thriving pockets of ignorance. For the vast majority of us, this tale brings a shake of the head and a dab to the eye.  But it is a mistake to look at these people, thankfully far removed from most of our lives, and believe they are the only remains of racism. They represent one extreme example. The root of the problem will always lie within each of us.

Our DNA programs us to identify with one group, scope out an opposing group and call them the enemy, or at least label them as lesser than ourselves. We do it with everything: gender, religion, politics, careers, languages, neighborhoods, cities, states, art, literature, music, sports, software platforms, and even topics of celebrity gossip. I am no exception. I couldn’t help but feel smugly superior at the sight of parents who insist on an all-white prom in 2008. Of all our divisions, race is our country’s big whopper.  Its horrific legacy is always with us.

While I may use race and economic disparity interchangeably, I realize they are separate issues. They steam ahead on parallel tracks, however, fueled by the heat of ignorance and apathy.

I once saw an interview of Chris Rock in which he said that the inequality between blacks and whites is so great that every person in America should wake up in the morning wondering what he or she can do about it. The man has a point.

But what can we I do?

As a stay-at-home mother of three young children in Minneapolis, the stresses of my relatively charmed life kick my pasty white ass more often than not.  I mean, I can’t even keep my damn house clean. How could I help solve the racial and economic inequalities in our society? George Clooney can’t even save Darfur. Look at the challenges faced by Oprah Winfrey and Bill and Melinda Gates. But hell, these people sure are trying. They try because they know it is the best they can do.  And really, we all should be trying.  The magnitude of the task is not reason to give up, only reason to try.

Money alone cannot overcome the cultural barriers that maintain the status quo. Can we even understand fully what those barriers are? Richard Wright (Black Boy, Native Son) was partly raised in a household where secular reading materials were not allowed. And secular, by his grandmother’s definition, meant any writings outside the approval of her Seventh Day Adventist church. His journey toward the amazing writer he became was paved with contraband literature, access to which was a constant struggle in his early life.

My parental starting point, which I do not consider to be enough, is this:  My preschool-aged children have not heard “black” and “white” in our home to describe one’s appearance. On their own, they have used dark brown, tan, pink, pale, etc., whatever description they conjure to describe their observations.  It is not that I believe black and white are inappropriate terms. They will certainly learn and use them eventually. It is that I want my children to experience people as individuals before they are given such falsely narrow definitions.

Soon enough they will learn the atrocities in our history and the bigotry to blame. I look forward to teaching them about the brave and innovative heroes who forged the paths of change.

In the meantime, you might say I am hyper-attentive to their social development in this area. Even though I was raised by enlightened and progressive parents, I know how easy it is for a child to form simplistic biases with negative implications. Children crave concrete categories and explanations for everything they see. And, I’m afraid, some childhood conclusions are never outgrown. Awareness and education are our best defense.

While our family traveled in New Jersey this past December, my kids heard the term “black” in a not-so-positive descriptive context. Back home a few days later, I overheard one four year old daughter tell the other that she was black. The accused fought back vigilantly.

“No, I’m not.”

“Yes, you are.”

“No, I’m not.  Mom, she says I’m black.”

“What is wrong with that?” I finally mustered with reddened face and clenched teeth. I fought the urge to try to stop it, knowing that the slightest display of my discomfort would propel this incident into overdrive. Discomfort?!? I was having a mighty urge to freak out. This all happened, of course, as we wound our way through the wide, well lit and crowded isles of our local Target. Just as I was about to utter something ineffective that would surely make it all worse, my antagonizing daughter said, “Yes you are. You have on black pants.”

“Oh,” was my defending daughter’s only response. And that was the end of that.

While reading an article on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates online the other day, my daughter came up and pointed at the screen and said, “Barack Obama!” My heart sank. On the screen was a huge photo of Dr. Gates who, other than a similar tone of skin, looks nothing like our President.

“Honey, that’s Henry Louis Gates.”

“Not him, him.” And indeed, there was a photo of President Obama in an advertisement at the top of the page. Whew!

I can bust my butt to teach my kids to consider people as individuals, but that does nothing for the millions in our population who struggle with desperate financial circumstances. Poverty exists in all shades. A lot of people look at those in poverty and shake their heads, wondering when “those people” will get it right. In the case of African Americans, well, let’s see. As a group they were systematically denied a decent education for hundreds of years and countless generations and were told it was because God made them inferior by giving them dark skin. White business owners profited obscenely from their ignorance and lack of power. Now we tell them they need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and use the English language properly.

“None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps,” said Thurgood Marshall. He would have known. And quite a few reasonably educated light-skinned folks butcher the English language, too. My mother can give you a laundry list of examples, including my own serial grammatical infractions.

The disadvantaged in our society can and must contribute to the solution of poverty, but we cannot wash our hands of it either. We all have a vested interest in solving the problems of poverty AND racism.

To think that racism is only prevalent in the American South is an irresponsible fallacy. During my first years in Minneapolis, I was told by a coworker that her teenage son had started making racists comments and she was worried about the influence his group of friends was having on him.  Before I could respond, she smiled, threw up her hands and said, “Oh well, boys will be boys.”

To say I “went off” is an understatement. She may not technically be a racist, but her apathy is reckless.

The modern-day South is filled with hard-working people of every shade who only want a safe community in which to raise their children and live out their days. These folks are just less likely to make the national news.

There are also many inspiring examples of people dedicated to making their corner of the South a good place to be. Here are just two amazing examples in my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi.

Bob Moses, once a civil rights worker in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960’s, now works tirelessly with a program started at an all black high school in Jackson to help overcome performance gaps in advance mathematics in impoverished areas. His innovative work on The Algebra Project is now a national model for quality math education in communities of economic disadvantage.

Every heard of Ross Barnett? He was not a nice fella. Ask James Meredith. Governor Barnett’s daughter, Ouida Barnett Atkins taught at Lanier High School in her final recent years prior to retirement. Lanier is an all black high school in Jackson, not much of a distinction since the population of Jackson is largely black.  She was interviewed on NBC a few years ago about her commitment to her students and how her father would not have approved.

Why is there still a line drawn between cream and milk chocolate? Even if we managed to mix ourselves up so that we are all closer to the median shade, we would find another divisive distinction. Don’t think so? Watch Hotel Rwanda. We all have our biases, every one of us. It is just a matter of what they are and how aware of them we choose to be.