Friday, August 18, 2006

Race in Franklin

(News-Herald, August 17) Race has always been an issue in Venangoland.
That’s not surprising, really. Small town settings already have a strong strain of prejudice. Prejudice (without a “racial” in front of it) is simply the business of pre-judging someone based on a small piece of information, and in areas like ours, folks do it all the time.
We pre-judge based on family and background (“Don’t you hire him! I remember how much trouble his sister gave my uncle when she was renting an apartment from him”). Peoples’ histories follow them around forever (“I don’t want my grandchildren playing with his—you remember what a jerk he was in seventh grade!”). This is an area where “which high school did you graduate from” is still a reasonable and important question to ask someone.
Long-time residents are pre-judged on the basis of their family name. And if someone’s family name doesn’t carry back many generations around here, we pre-judge them on that.
Family too poor? Family too rich? Folks not from around here? We can find lots of folks who will pre-judge you quickly based on any of that.
I’m not saying that this sort of prejudice is necessarily as bad as racial prejudice. I am saying that in a local culture like ours, it would be surprising if racial prejudice were not also present.
Popular culture has taken to seriously minimizing racism in American history, leaving younger generations with the notion that somehow it was just a matter of white folks being kind of mean to black folks. There’s also a modern perception that such behavior is far, far behind us.
In June of 1963, the shooting of Medgar Evans was front page story in the News-Herald. Almost exactly a year later, another story ran about Franklin’s Negro Improvement League doing a local survey organized by Fred Harris.
The newspaper was careful to note that all fifteen participating Negroes were local youths (none of those “not from around here” folks).
The published results of the survey indicated that only four or five of the approx. 200 Local Negroes had jobs in local industries. Only two small sections of Franklin offered housing for Negroes; in the previous year a couple had bought a house in the lower end of town, and neighbors had circulated a petition to have them move out.
On Liberty Street, only one restaurant was willing to serve Negro customers. By the end of the summer, the barbers of Franklin met and voted to comply with the edict of the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission. “All Franklin Barbers Agree to Serve Negroes” was the newspaper headline.
So if that’s where we were forty years ago, things have to be better today. Right? I like to think so—certainly many, many of my students interact without any apparent regard for race. But I’m a middle-aged white guy who tends to be highly optimistic about my fellow humans, so I have to reluctantly admit that this is an area where I may not see the full picture.
I’ve stood with a bi-racial couple while someone drove by hollering ugly words. And I’ve listened to a college-educated grown-up explain that she preferred not to eat at a certain fast food place because so many of their ads featured “those people” (i.e. “black folk”). And I’ve heard many times of Cranberry residents who brag that Cranberry High has never graduated a black student.
But it’s a complicated business. Most of the folks I know with issues about race are not cartoon crackers. Many are God-fearing decent folks, nice as pie.
And it stretches across cultural divides we don’t discuss much in this country—rural vs. urban, working vs. upper classes. Folks who are born and raised to rural small town life have, I suspect, far more in common with each other than with their big-city ethnic counterparts. And tell a white working class guy that he’s part of the white power structure and he’ll be baffled because, as near as he can tell, he doesn’t have power over so much as when he gets to eat lunch.
On top of that, small town prejudice can often include a complete disconnect between the big picture and the small. A man can give a long explanation about what’s wrong with black people and how they need to be straightened out, then in the next breath threaten to beat the snot out of someone who mistreated his good friend, who happens to be black.
I don’t have any solutions to propose. Even good people sometimes have hard problems.

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