The Media, the South
The view that most Americans have of the South is more stereotype than truth.

James Meredith statue on the Ole Miss campus.


Lee Habeeb

When will the leaders at Ole Miss finally learn? When will they finally figure out that some things are above the pay grade of college chancellors and administrators? When will they learn that no matter how hard you try to protect students from the stupidity and hatefulness of a very few people, stupidity and hatefulness will always be among us?

The goal of trying to make Ole Miss a hate-free zone is about as elusive as trying to make it an evil-free zone.

And when will Ole Miss learn that no matter what you do, and how often you apologize, the national media will treat every stupid, hateful episode at your school as confirmation that the institution you lead is backward and racist? That the state and even the entire region you live in is hateful and stupid?

As if racial hatefulness and stupidity happen only on campuses — and in states — below the Mason-Dixon line.

Last weekend at the Ole Miss campus, a few freshmen decided to put a noose and a Confederate symbol around a statue of James Meredith, the African-American hero who led the desegregation charge at Ole Miss back in 1962. The national media went into full-outrage mode, as if someone had actually been hanged with that noose. Headlines from CNN to the New York Times soon made the Drudge Report.

The administration went into full defense mode, as it should have. They went about trying to find the culprits. A bounty was put out on the kids, and they were soon identified. There were moves to pursue suspension. Some were even gunning to charge the kids, though it’ll be hard to turn doing something stupid and hateful to a statue into a criminal act.

And Dan Jones, the chancellor of Ole Miss, issued a perfectly good statement about the actions of the three freshmen: “Their ideas have no place here,” he said, “and our response will be an even greater commitment to promoting the values that are engraved on the statue — Courage, Knowledge, Opportunity, and Perseverance.”

But it was an incomplete response, and incomplete because it did nothing to dispel the deeper narrative the media love to perpetuate about Ole Miss. And nothing to address the last, and most socially acceptable, form of bigotry left in America — regional bigotry.

As someone who moved from New Jersey to Mississippi eight years ago, I don’t understand why leaders here don’t more aggressively rebut the stereotypes the media perpetuate about the South. Because no amount of apologizing or explaining will ever change what the media think about us.

If I had had the platform that the chancellor had, I would have spoken about the student stupidity for mere minutes, and then said this to the nation’s media:

These actions are what they are: the acts of a few punks. They in no way reflect the student body here at Ole Miss, or the people of this state.

As someone who grew up in New Jersey, and who at a young age read Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” I can’t imagine the pain segregation inflicted on black people. It can make a grown man cry, the part where King talks about being tongue-tied when he tried to explain to his six-year-old daughter why she couldn’t go to the public amusement park that she’d just seen advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes that Funtown was closed to colored children. I remember with searing clarity King talking about having to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”

It is crucial that we remember that history, just as we must study the Holocaust, because the capacity of human beings to do horrible things to one another knows no bounds — and is restricted by no geography.

But that history is long dead here at Ole Miss and in the South, even if the media think otherwise.

This I know: My adopted state of Mississippi has better race relations than does my old home state of New Jersey. It has more integration in its schools and daily life. Indeed, my old home state has some of the worst segregation you could imagine. No law compels it; it’s voluntary. The people choose to live that way.

As a result, large swaths of the state’s public schools are filled with white kids, while others — particularly the poorest and most dangerous urban areas in Camden, Newark, Jersey City, and elsewhere — are filled with mostly poor minority children.

Contrast that with my daughter’s third-grade class at Oxford Elementary, where you see large numbers of black and white kids seated together. More than 20 percent of the kids in her school are African-American.

Why, members of the media, don’t you write more stories about that?