Early Sunday morning, while the rest of Mississippi was getting over Saturday night or getting ready for church, two men defaced a statue.
They weren’t just men. They were white men.
The statue wasn’t just a statue, and its location wasn’t just a place; the statue is a likeness of James Meredith, and the place is the University of Mississippi.
The story was on the second page of the state newspaper. I can’t decide if that’s a sign of progress or of surrender.
As everyone knows, Meredith exposed himself to grave physical danger to integrate Ole Miss fifty years ago. His cause was blessed and just. The racist vitriol and the riots that ensued gave the state and the university a richly deserved reputation for a regressive mindset and culture. Both have spent decades since then trying to prove that they’re good places to live, with laudatory successes. Would Ole Miss have been the site of the first presidential debate in 2008 if there hadn’t been considerable progress? Then things like this pop up. Meredith contributed as much to the Civil Rights movement as Rosa Parks. The men who defaced his statue have contributed to the stereotype of Mississippi as a land of racial regression—which brings me to the elephant in the room: trying to resolve whether or not Mississippi is, in fact, more racist than other states.
I must admit the issue has obsessed me since I moved here from Louisiana two decades ago. I have tried to “do my part” to make sure that Mississippi, however belatedly, can enter a post-racial society where people can celebrate diversity without sacrificing a sense of togetherness. My wife and I went to an Ole Miss gospel choir concert on our first date. I have coordinated civil rights rallies. I attend MLK Day celebrations, I teach a diverse array of writers on my course syllabi, I tutor underprivileged children, I instruct my own children to judge others by their actions, not by their appearances. I don’t want my children to curse, but I’d rather hear an f-bomb escape their lips than “n—-r,” which means there are certain recordings that will never be in my kids’ iPods. Phrases like “call a spade a spade” and “a coon’s age” have disappeared from my vernacular for the fear that they may be considered racist. Will Campbell and Duncan Gray are heroes to me. So are Zora Neale Hurston and Ida B. Wells.
But the issue of race in Mississippi is too complex and too deep for one man—one older, well-intentioned, reasonably well-off white man—to present his anecdotes as universal truths. Race and class beat at the heart of all political and cultural concerns in the state: whether you want to discuss the food desert or education, diabetes or home loans, those two issues will find their way into the conversation. So what is this conversation about? The first thing to make clear is that this isn’t a teaching moment. Treating it that way would be akin to allowing a thief to keep robbing banks, or a registrar to keep turning away voters who can’t say how many bubbles are on a bar of soap.
However, I need to learn something. Where is Mississippi headed with the issue of race? Tell me, please. Do we want a post-racial, colorblind society? If that idea amounts to mere fantasy, how can we celebrate our diversity without losing the sense of togetherness that makes communities thrive?
**UPDATE** Three Ole Miss freshmen from Georgia have been listed as suspects.