The Media, the South

by Lee Habeeb
The view that most Americans have of the South is more stereotype than truth.

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?

My new home state has more elected black officials than any other state. Not just more per capita — more, period. It’s Massachusetts that now has the fewest elected African-American officials per capita.

Where are the headlines about that?

The South was once a major exporter of people to the northern states. But the tide of migration has been flowing the other way for decades. Last year alone, the South accounted for six of the eight states attracting the most domestic migrants: Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia. The top four losers? New York, Illinois, New Jersey, and California.

Where are the stories about the exodus of millions of Americans from north to south? From blue states to red?

And it wasn’t just white folks heading South. The nation’s African-American population grew 1.7 million over the past decade — and 75 percent of that growth occurred in the South. The percentage of the nation’s African-American population living in the South hit its highest point in half a century, as more black people moved out of declining cities in the Midwest and Northeast.

If the South is such a racially backward place, why are so many African Americans moving here? And why aren’t more of you writing about that story?

If it’s so backward here in the South, why are Alabama and Kentucky two of the top auto-manufacturing states in the country? And why is the Gulf Coast corridor between Louisiana and Florida now the fourth-largest aerospace hub in the world?

It’s quite a story. Entire industries — and millions of black and white Americans — are moving to a part of the country that many in America think of as backward. And most Americans outside the South don’t know about it. And they don’t know about it because you don’t tell them the stories.

We know why. If you media folks look deeply into your hearts, you know why too. You think you are better than us. You like to look down on us. The ideological prejudices many of you cling to — and many academic too, even here at Ole Miss — have a lot to do with feeling morally superior to us on the subject of race. You won’t permit yourself to admit the obvious: that we’ve come a very long way here in the South, and that maybe — just maybe — we’re ahead of many other states on the race front.

I think your moral superiority may spring from a deeper cultural place. That many of us in the South — a clear majority — are not crazy about unions, and cling to our guns and our faith, can’t possibly help our reputation in your eyes, because you think we’re backward for believing what we believe about those things.

It doesn’t help that our movies and our television sets push out the usual stereotypes as well. Think Sling Blade meets Hee-Haw meets The Help, and you get the point.

I am not a social scientist or a psychiatrist, and perhaps we will never know why so many of you hold on to your prejudices. But I do know that you routinely cherrypick stories that reinforce old negative cultural stereotypes, while ignoring stories that could bust the stereotypes.

Yes, there is racism here in the South, and yes — we condemn the acts of these three kids. But I can’t stand by idly and watch the actions of a few tarnish this institution. I can’t let the caricature of the South stand, and not because I am from here, but because it’s not true. It doesn’t represent the adopted state I know or this region of the country I love.

In the downtown of my hometown of Oxford, Miss., sits a statue of our local hero, William Faulkner. “The past is never dead,” he once opined. “In fact, it’s not even past.”

If I had told him when he was alive that a Japanese auto company would be making American cars just an hour east of here in Tupelo and employing thousands of locals, he would have called me crazy. If I had told him that Mississippi would one day have more African Americans holding public office than any other state in America, he’d have called me a dreamer.

The fact is, white people and black people from all over America — and businesses from all over the world — are investing in the South, some with their capital, others with their lives. And all because they see something here that most of you don’t: the future.

You are missing a very big story here at Ole Miss and in the South, you members of the media. One infused with redemption, forgiveness, and love.

If only you had the imagination — or the courage — to cover it.

— Lee Habeeb is the vice president of content at Salem Radio Network and a senior adviser to AmericaStrong. He lives in Oxford, Miss., with his wife, Valerie, and daughter, Reagan.