17 February 2007

Never Comprehending the Race had Long Gone By

I've had that line, from a song by the group Modern English, going through my head for awhile now. It's something I think about whenever I read some kind of rant about contemporary American race relations that implies the country is still stuck in the 1950s. This is something we seem to hear a lot during February, which is Black History Month. It amazes me that so many think that in terms of race relations, 2007 America is essentially indistinguishable from 1957 America.

And speaking of prejudices and preconceptions, a widely-accepted one that I seldom hear questioned is that rural people are filled with racial bigotry. This is something I've been wanting to address for some time.

Although I am white, my wife is black. I admit that when we were first contemplating moving to the country, the notion of "rural bigotry" was an important concern and something we discussed at some length. In the end, we determined that we would rather deal with whatever racial hostility we may encounter in rural Illinois than continue putting up with the urbanization of Los Angeles. Besides, Los Angeles had plenty of racial tension of its own.

So, what happened when we moved here? The community welcomed us with open arms...and that includes the guy around the corner who has an enormous Confederate flag decal filling the rear window of his pickup truck. The first month or so we were here, we got exactly one hostile look (from a woman in the crowd at a farm auction we were attending). But other than that? Absolutely nothing, unless you count curious looks from small children.

What got me thinking and stewing about this was a recent (uncritical) book review in our diocesan newspaper. The book in question is self-published, by a priest from Nigeria doing graduate studies in St. Louis. The review is reproduced verbatim on the book's Amazon page, in case you're curious.

The book claims that racial bigotry and prejudice are widespread in America, including within the Catholic Church. The author details all kinds of slights that he has endured, and derides this country (which, I would point out, he chose to come to and chooses to stay in) for its intolerance toward people with his skin color. And he singles out American Catholics as being no less bigoted than anyone else in this country.

I found myself asking "what country is this guy living in?" and "what decade is this guy living in?" The country he describes is entirely different from the one our family has experienced. We and our children have lived in rural communities, suburbs, and large cities, in a variety of regions, including the old Confederacy. Our first child, much to my wife's chagrin, was born south of Mason-Dixon. Our parishes have ranged from traditional to contemporary. In more than eleven years of marriage, we can count on one hand the number of prejudiced reactions we have experienced—and one of these was from another black. Only one of these incidents occurred in a Catholic church.

I suppose this is ultimately a question of perspective; I don't doubt that the author has encountered hostility in this country, and I don't doubt that he chalks that up to American bigotry. But I suspect (and this is purely supposition - I haven't read his book) that much of that hostility is based as much on cultural differences and misunderstandings as it is on race per se. For example, apparently he once tried to give a dying person the Anointing of the Sick, and the person asked for some other priest to give it instead. Could racism have caused the person's reaction? Sure. But might it also have been based on the priest's heavy accent and manner of interacting with with the dying person? Might the dying person have felt more comfortable with a priest of his own culture? And might the same thing have happened if the priest was from, say, Poland or Romania? I don't know, but I think it's worth considering.

I don't mean to single out one particular book, or to bash one particular author. I'm hoping to make a more general point about the evolution of race relations in this country. As you hear others, in this month of February, deride the USA for its faults of racial justice, please keep our family and our experiences in mind as a counterpoint.

And for those who might be thinking about moving to the country, but have been hesitant because you've been told that rural people are intolerant: it's not necessarily true. Different regions and different communities might have different kinds of people. But at least here in Ford County, Illinois, race has "long gone by" as an issue. The future is open wide, and getting better all the time.

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