Racial Prejudice and the Southern Context

It is all too easy to propagate a one-dimensional view of the South, a mistake made by New York Times contributing opinion writer Wajahat Ali in his recent piece “This Ramadan, I’ll Try Praying For Enemies, Friends, Frenemies, and Kanye West.”

Ali recounts a trip that he took to Williamsburg, Virginia to give a speech at William & Mary. On the way to campus, his car breaks down and he struggles to flag a passing motorist for assistance. Eventually, a doctoral student at William & Mary stops to help, saying, “I saw a fellow person of color and around here, well, we all got to help each other.” When the man operating the tow truck, “a tough-looking white dude,” arrives, Ali seems shocked that a white man would extend the basic kindness of recommending a place to eat in town.

Ali goes on to conclude that this chance encounter embodies the spirit of Ramadan. He seems astounded, however, that the formation of “a tiny, temporary multicultural community” could happen in “places like this.” Had Ali done even the most basic research, he would have found Williamsburg, and the surrounding area, to be significantly more racially diverse than many places in the country.

James City County, the polity surrounding Williamsburg, has a population that is 74.6 percent white. Newport News, a city just south of Williamsburg, is one of only 78 “majority-minority” local jurisdictions in the country. Six of these localities are in Virginia. Compared with my hometown in suburban Massachusetts, with a population that is 92.5 percent white, or Franklin County, Massachusetts, where my mother grew up, which is 94.2 percent white, Williamsburg and its surroundings qualify as racially diverse. Why, then, does Ali find it so unlikely that three members of different races would come together in a friendly way in that area?

Ali paints a rather grim image of race relations in Virginia. Traveling in a Southern state, he assumes that no one stops to help him because he is a person of color. Considered for just a moment, the implication of his column becomes clear. Ali subtly suggests that only another person of color would come to his rescue in such a prejudiced Southern state, which is why the white man’s hospitality surprises him.

Racial prejudice is not a Southern problem--it is an American problem. To focus the national dialogue about race relations on the South is intellectually dishonest and ignores the rest of the country. I do not mean to apologize for the South or its highly racialized history. I would suggest, however, that as long as American popular culture and its formative institutions, like the New York Times, depict racial prejudice only in its Southern context, Americans will remain blinded to injustice throughout the country.

Identity politics further obfuscates racism in America. By inserting race into what should have been a discussion of a culture of kindness in the South, Ali cries wolf upon an empty field. Had the white man pulled up in a truck bearing the Confederate flag, his surprise at the man’s friendliness might very well have been warranted. Given, though, that the tow truck driver was only a white Southern man, Ali showed himself to be the prejudiced party. Continued cries like this will deafen our ears to shouts of genuine racial discrimination.