‘Differentness’ is real, but doesn’t always matter
It was certainly no surprise when race bubbled up more than a month ago in the runoff between Cindy Hyde-Smith and Mike Espy.
It wasn’t the dominant theme, of course, despite the fact that Hyde-Smith is white and Espy is black. It arose only after Hyde-Smith made a jovial remark about “public hanging” at a campaign stop in Tupelo.
Because Hyde-Smith seemed genuinely puzzled when her comment took on a life of its own, the topic is worth a deeper look.
Everybody knows racism isn’t always overt. Yet some don’t or refuse to realize that invoking differentness purposely or with the effect of singling people out for no reason betrays, at best, a fixed bias.
Look at it in a different context.
Suppose that whenever she’s introduced in Washington, Hyde-Smith is constantly called “the girl senator from Mississippi” or the “woman senator from Mississippi?” That would be accurate, but it would also segregate her. It’s relevant and impressive that she’s the first woman elected to Congress from Mississippi, but otherwise it is not a factor. Why? Because gender is not an issue in the context of Senate membership. Her voice and her vote are equal to the other 99.
If she were to take offense or even become a bit perturbed by a constant gender reference, then she would perhaps understand why her aphorism about public hangings was offensive. As is well-established, Mississippi is a state where far more black people than white people have faced either lawful execution or extra-judicial killing. It’s not a proper topic for a light-hearted comment, as she described it.
Instead, it’s divisive because it calls attention to the violence disproportionately suffered by black that whites sometimes celebrated. Not funny. Not at all.
That’s not clear? OK. Take Bubba and his poker group as another illustration. Bubba and three others are white. The fifth player is black. Let’s say Bubba is telling someone about the group. Does he say, “Me and four friends play poker every Thursday night,” or does he say, “Me and three white friends and one black friend play poker every Thursday night?”
More than likely, Bubba would use the first version. A friend is a friend. Race has nothing to do with it.
Yes, there are plentiful times when race and gender and other distinguishing factors matter. There are profound differences (thank goodness) between men and women and there are clear cultural differences race to race, nation to nation and region to region. At least one member of Bubba’s poker group groans whenever Bubba tunes to country radio during the poker game. A visitor to the Delta from France is puzzled, at best, when she learns black people make delectable tamales, a Mexican dish.
Differentness is not a bad thing. It’s a great thing. It’s only when differences are used to demean or disrespect or marginalize that hurt — real hurt — occurs.
A sentence from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address comes to mind.
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Clearly, there was no malice in Hyde-Smith’s comment, but that did not make it OK.
The racism that manifested itself after the Civil War and up through more than half of the last century was malicious. Night riders. Lynchings. Overt methods to deny education to black Americans and block them from voting, obtaining jobs. Until the 1960s, black Americans could not eat at the same restaurants as whites or stay at the same hotels.
Some overt racism continues in America, but it’s less common. Perhaps that explains why when the shrill voices of the left throw around the words “racist” and “hater” these days, the Hyde-Smiths of our state and nation react in amazement. They’re not in the KKK. They don’t harbor visceral hate for anyone, much less preach racial superiority.
What they are is deaf to the experience of others. It is hurtful — and wrong — to invoke, raise or even reference race when irrelevant. At worst, doing so reveals deep-seated prejudice. At best, insensitivity.
Should minorities just “get over it?” No. Not anymore than Hyde-Smith would get over it if repeatedly called the “girl senator.”
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.