Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sunset for Sundown Signs?

File this away in the E-for-Effort folder of "Things The New York Times Gets Wrong About The South."

There's an interesting article in the New York Times today titled "Race in the South in the Age of Obama" about James Fields, a black State Representative from predominently-white Cullman, Alabama. As the author Nicholas Davidoff notes, Cullman is notorious for its history of being a "racist white bigot county." (Dawidoff adds: "In Alabama, this is, of course, saying something.") Though Rep. Fields neither confirms nor denies this, one of the things that helped Cullman County earn its reputation was its display of "sundown signs" up through the 1970's. Sundown signs were not unusual in the pre-Civil Rights South, nor were they unambigious. Cullman's sign was typically straightforward in its warning, and read "Niggers Don't Let The Sun Go Down On You In This Town." The aim of the NYT article, it seems, is to show how much has changed "in the Age of Obama" in towns like Cullman, and Representative Fields' success story is just about all the evidence we need.

Or is it?

Dawidoff's article is one of those strange pieces in which the argument and the evidence seem to be at odds with each other. Recounting Rep. Fields' unlikely rise to political office in the midst of a historically (and abidingly) racist Alabama county is meant to demonstrate that the era of sundown signs has decidedly passed. And, of course, to a certain extent, that's right. Towns do not (read: cannot) hang racist sundown signs anymore, and despite the fact that Obama was soundly defeated in Alabama, it is probably true that his candidacy and eventual election cleared a space for other black politicians like Fields. But most of Dawidoff's article, and Fields' own first-person account, is a testament to what Fields has accomplished in spite of Obama, not because of him... that is, what Fields has accomplished in spite of, even in the midst of, abiding Southern racism. The title of Dawidoff's article indicates that we are to learn something about "Race in the South in the Age of Obama," but there is little in the article there to learn. It is, for the most part, a very familiar picture of Southern racism presented in the context of an instance of its exception. Dawidoff's tone suggests that we might understand the Fields Exception as signaling the sunset of "sundown sign" racism. That sort of racism, this story allegedly demonstrates, can be and is overcome by white racists... as long as they can find a "respectable" black (not like the rest of "those people," not like Obama) that they know and can relate to as a "friend and neighbor."

Interestingly, Dawidoff includes a quote by historian Wayne Flynt that illuminates much of the tension Dawidoff seems to miss in his own article. Explaining how Fields' white constituents might be able to look past their generally-held racist assumptions and vote for a black man, Flynt says:

Incongruous and incomprehensible to people is that Southerners generally don't personalize race. The more abstract race becomes, the more racist it becomes... In my lifetime, the major change is that personalism can trump racism.

What Flynt's observation illuminates, I think, is that white racists' sundown signs are still around (even if invisible) and the warnings still generally apply to blacks (even if allowing exceptions for the blacks they know "personally"). So, I'm not sure that Dawidoff's article doesn't really show that "race in the South in the age of Obama" ends up looking quite a bit like "race everywhere else in the age of Obama," that is, too self-congratulatory and too in thrall with the image of a "post-racial" America. There's not a whole lot that's unique to the South in this story, save the fact that the South still suffers from regionalist stereotypes of it as a place where sundown signs still hang. (Even though they don't still hang, and even though, when they did, they also hung everywhere else in America.) It's just yet another example of the terribly naive belief that racism is a personal, psychological anomaly that can be combatted incrementally.

Flynt had it right: the more abstract and impersonal race becomes, the more racist it becomes. There's nothing about statements like "Some of my closest friends are black" or "I voted for a black candidate" that cancels out the old sundown sign's generic "Niggers Don't Let The Sun Go Down On You In This Town." Exceptions do not invalidate the rule. Rather, exceptions-- qua "exceptions"-- reinforce the Rule of the rule.

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