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Mississippi Yearning: Ole Miss ‘Race Riots’
Some in the South need to let go of its past.

On the campus of Ole Miss, November 6, 2012

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119
Lee Habeeb

But when I then told them that my girl goes to a great public school, one that has an African-American population that exceeds 30 percent, and that the kids get along, they were dumbfounded. As they should be, because my friends in Jersey don’t know what they don’t know.

Moreover, though they like to see themselves as racial progressives, they live in some of the most segregated schools in America. And they segregate not because the law compels them to. They segregate because they choose to.

And Mississippians are the racists?

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I don’t blame my Yankee friends for thinking the thoughts they think. The south has been a media caricature for decades. Think Sling Blade, Hee-Haw, and Mississippi Burning all rolled into one — and throw in The Help for seasoning — and you can’t blame anyone for thinking what they think about the South.

But I do blame some Mississippi leaders for feeding into this narrative. And overreacting to every charge of racism — true or false — with a zeal that often seems disproportionate to the charge. 

Senator Trent Lott learned that lesson the hard way. He spent decades in public life serving his constituents — white and black. But an innocuous statement during a celebration of the late senator Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday led to charges of racism. Rather than rebut those claims, he went on an apology tour. If Lott had been born in the North, the charge would never have been made, let alone stuck. Moreover, Lott would not have felt the need to declare his innocence the way so many southerners feel compelled to do when it comes to racism.

In the end, all of the apologizing in the world couldn’t call off the racial dogs; there was nothing he could say to expiate his non-sin. Lott resigned from his Senate leadership position because of the non-event, his reputation forever smeared by the false charge of racism.

The fact is, once you find yourself saying “I am not a racist,” all is lost.

I didn’t understand why Lott did what he did until I moved to Oxford in 2006. It didn’t take long for me to understand the people’s deep-seated anxiety over race, and Mississippi’s past. And the speed with which even white Mississippians — especially white liberal Mississippians — level the racism charge for merely thinking thoughts that are not racist at all, especially ideological ones like welfare reform or affirmative action. Or the worst of them all, states’ rights.

The history here is complicated. Slavery and segregation were a great stain on Mississippi’s heritage, and the South’s too. But some leaders at Ole Miss seem fixated on that past, and any possible offense to African Americans, real or imagined.

Their zero tolerance attitude for even perceived racial offense has done much good. It’s important to make students of all backgrounds feel welcome at any institution of higher learning. But such work can become counterproductive if taken to extremes. And especially if dictated from above through administrative decree.

A case in point: the old Ole Miss mascot, Colonel Reb, was routinely ranked one of America’s most loved mascots by ESPN. Colonel Reb was Ole Miss sports. But one day, without input from anyone, the powers that be at Ole Miss decided to shove the mascot into early retirement. Their rationale? The colonel conjured up images of plantation life that some African-American athletes found offensive. That, Ole Miss fans were told, was the reason Ole Miss was having a hard time winning in sports. Leadership wasn’t the problem, and piling up losses wasn’t the cause of their recruiting woes. The mascot was!

It didn’t seem credible to an outsider like me, this charge that the colonel offended black people. He looks a whole lot like the Kentucky Fried Chicken colonel, and that doesn’t stop my black friends from getting their fried chicken there. Or black people across America.



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