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REX NELSON: Thoughts on race

by Rex Nelson | June 14, 2020 at 1:45 a.m.

I had already been thinking about race relations after rereading Dispatches from Pluto by Richard Grant. The British-born travel writer moved to a rural home in the Mississippi Delta, befriended blacks and whites in the area, and then seemed to get a better feel for race relations in the South than many of us who have lived here our entire lives.

"We know how to get along with each other, I'd say better than most places, but most of the time we don't," Bill Luckett, a former mayor of Clarksdale, Miss., and a business partner of actor Morgan Freeman, told Grant.

"Why is that?" Grant asked. "History? Lack of trust? Racism?"

"It's like smoking," Luckett replied. "People are hooked on it, even though they know it's bad for them. It's hard to quit smoking. It takes effort and willpower and perseverance, but millions of people have done it, and it's becoming a thing of the past."

We weren't wealthy when I was growing up, but we were comfortable. And we had a black maid. My mother, who was the business manager at my father's store in downtown Arkadelphia, would pick Lucille Balch up each morning Monday through Friday and then take her home each afternoon. I always called her Lucille, though looking back it would have been proper to have called her Mrs. Balch. I would visit the Turner brothers, and Cornelia would be working in their house. I would visit the Balay brothers, and Miss Ida would be working there. I never knew the last names of those two ladies.

Lucille was more than a maid and more than the cook whose food is still the standard by which I judge all chefs (none of whom measure up). She helped raise me. I occasionally went into the small house she shared with her husband near the cemetery where my parents and brother are now buried. I never knew much about Lucille's family, though we were asked to sit with the family at her funeral. I just know that I loved her, and I think she loved me. The happiest I ever saw her was when I brought my fiancee (now my wife of more than 30 years) home from Washington, D.C., for the first time. I wanted Lucille (who likely had given up on my finding a spouse) to meet her. Lucille had attended my sister's wedding years earlier and was in the wedding photos.

The Arkadelphia School District integrated when I was in elementary school, and I quickly made several black friends, some of whom I've tried to keep in touch with for more than 50 years. Meanwhile, the most influential man in my life outside of my father was a black football coach named Willie Tate. I was deeply honored to be asked to speak at his funeral.

I've struggled with this issue in recent weeks. By writing these paragraphs, am I part of the "some of my best friends are black" syndrome? I wonder. I reached out to one of those black friends of more than half a century (a man who has been outspoken on social media, and rightfully so, since the death of George Floyd) and said: "If you're hurting, I'm hurting." It's all I knew to say.

It's complicated, isn't it? I realize I'm a product of my era--a white man older than 60 who was raised in the South.

"We were finding the word racist to be increasingly unhelpful because racism came in so many different forms and degrees," Grant wrote. "There were mild racists, who talked about 'they' in ways that were not unkind, but didn't allow for much individual variation, and told racist jokes that weren't mean, but gently patronizing. There were hateful racists, who seemed to have a visceral loathing for black skin and blackness, and they put as much sneering contempt into the n-word as it would hold. That kind of racism was considered a sign of low, trashy breeding by the Delta gentry, and there was far more of it in the hills.

"A kind of affectionate racism prevailed among the Delta gentry. They had kind, paternalistic feelings toward black people and a genuine appreciation for black culture, but they didn't want a black man dating their daughters or sitting down to eat dinner at their table, because that wasn't the way things were done, or meant to be. These were just a few rough starter categories, and within them there were innumerable variations, nuances, spillovers and contradictions."

As the country attempts to rebuild, we at least have several things going for us in Arkansas. Our governor is a white Republican, but he's a moderate and a pragmatist. I just wish Asa Hutchinson would speak out more forcefully about the despotic faux Republican who now occupies the White House. Hutchinson is a real Republican, a man whose work in the party dates back to the administration of President Ronald Reagan. He's term limited and doesn't have to worry about re-election. Now is when he should be worrying about his legacy, and he could cement that legacy by calling out President Donald Trump. Were he still alive, I have no doubt that Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller--the father of modern Republicanism in Arkansas--would have already done so.

Arkansas' Republican Party, which probably will be the state's majority party for the remainder of my lifetime, must build on the proud foundation laid by Rockefeller during his four years as governor from 1967-71. It can still be done. When I managed Republican Mike Huckabee's 1998 gubernatorial campaign, we had a concerted effort to attract minority votes. CNN exit polls showed that Huckabee garnered 48 percent of the black vote. Meanwhile, black voters must be willing to support Republicans. To vote straight tickets year after year is detrimental. One party takes the vote for granted, and the other party doesn't figure it's worth the effort.

We're also fortunate in Arkansas to have respected black leaders as mayors of some of our largest cities such as Little Rock, Fort Smith and Pine Bluff. And let's not forget about the historians who have worked hard the past couple of decades to make Arkansans aware of this state's sad history of violence against blacks. I've written, for example, about two books edited by Guy Lancaster--Bullets and Fire: Lynching and Authority in Arkansas, 1840-1950 and The Elaine Massacre and Arkansas: A Century of Atrocity and Resistance, 1819-1919. It's important that we understand our history, as uncomfortable as that might be. Instead of simply tearing down Confederate statues, why not install interpretive signage that puts the reasons for erecting them in the first place into the proper context? Once again, it's complicated.

In the wake of Floyd's death, which was nothing short of a slow-motion execution, some protests resulted in violence and property destruction. Arkansas wasn't immune. The New York Times noted: "The escalating violence and destruction felt like a warning that this moment could be spinning out of control both because of the limitations of a largely spontaneous, leaderless movement and because, protesters and officials warned, there were indications it was also being undermined by agitators trying to sabotage it."

Keisha Lance Bottoms, the black mayor of Atlanta, said: "What are you changing by tearing up a city? You've lost all credibility now. This is not how we change America."

Cornel West, the well-known black activist and social critic who was born in Tulsa, noted a lack of leadership in both the black and white communities as well as in both major political parties. "There has been a crisis of leadership in both parties," he said. "The leadership class is losing its legitimacy."

Where are white leaders who should have called long ago for the needed systemic changes in law enforcement agencies? We must reform a system that makes it far too difficult to get rid of bad cops and get away from saying "it's just a few bad apples." By the same token, where are the black leaders who decry the epidemic of black-on-black crime?

It's complicated, isn't it?


Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


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