Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"Us and them" and/or "black and white"

I've been following the news of James Anderson's murder in Jackson, Mississippi, a crime that recent disclosures suggest was a hate crime. Read a recent report here. This story on the front page of today's New York Times debates whether the accused, Deryl Dedmon, and his accomplices were motivated by racism or whether the attack on Anderson, an African American, was simply a "anomaly born of anger, alcoholism and teenage stupidity."

Kim Severson's story is chock full of vivid depictions of Southern culture--a culture in which racism is arguably a central feature, if more recently a submerged and denied one. Severson writes:
Although they lived just 15 miles apart and spent Sundays in church, Mr. Anderson, 48, and Mr. Dedmon, 19, could not have led more different lives.

Mr. Dedmon liked his high school agriculture classes, but not as much as he loved hanging out with friends at a drive-in restaurant in the largely white suburban county where he lived, his friends say. He was the joker among a group for whom country music, Bible verses, Bud Light and pickup trucks serve as the cultural markers.

Mr. Anderson was a good country cook, a gifted gardener and always genial, his family said. He liked his job on the assembly line at the Nissan plant north of Jackson, where he had worked for about seven years.
The killing occurred in the parking lot of a motel in Jackson, just off the Interstate, where Dedmon and his friends had driven from neighboring Rankin County. Some testimony indicates that the teenagers were looking for a black person to harm, and one witness testified that one of the seven teens involved in the attack on Anderson yelled "white power."

Rankin County, which Severson describes as a "largely white suburban county," is hardly rural with a population of 141,617; indeed, it is part of the Jackson, Mississippi metropolitan area. Nevertheless, Severson's depiction is of a place that is culturally rural. For example, Severson describes it as a place "where redneck can be a term of pride among the young whites." A quote from Dedmon's younger sister reflects the same theme, up to a point: “We’re just country, and whoever comes here, we welcome everybody.”

One white teenager who went to high school with Dedmon and was bullied by Dedmon and his friends hits on that theme, too, but also its sinister downside: “There is a subgroup that takes the Southern country-boy thing to another level.”

Whether the "Southern country-boy thing" is always racist, I cannot say, but the opinion of an African-American psychiatrist in Jackson, Dr. Timothy Summers, resonated with me:
There still is that component of our culture that very much likes to hold on to how things have been in the past. ... That group, however, doesn’t represent the broader cross section of people who are good and honest but perhaps too naïve, perhaps too quiet, too complacent in looking at racism.

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