We’ve grown rather used to the self-congratulatory nature of many white politicians and commentators today, particularly those who seem to think that integration went just fine and we can focus on other issues now. The gap of experiences between black and white Americans continues to be vast, and ignoring the difference only widens the gap further.
Nowhere is this clearer than in Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour’s memories of his days at Ole Miss. I don’t doubt that he honestly believes he made great strides to accommodate his black classmate, Verna Bailey, the first black woman admitted to Ole Miss. I have no doubt that he believes that the experience seemed altogether normal to him. That’s how it feels to be the dominant social group — comfortable. He was operating in his element — a good ol’ boy, cutting classes, having a good time, enjoying college.
Bailey’s experience was a bit different:
Bailey said she finished her undergraduate degree in three years, not because she was a great student, but because she wanted to get out of Oxford, Miss., as fast as she could.
She recalled dancing in Oxford Square once with another black student at a school celebration when a crowd of whites began pelting them with coins and beer. “It was just an awful experience. I just saw this mass of anger; anger and hostility. I thought my life was going to end.”
A campus minister, one of the only whites she remembers showing her kindness, took her by the hand and led her to safety. She said the minister was ostracized.
During her undergraduate days, she was inundated with intimidating phone calls to her dorm from white men. “The calls were so constant,” she said. “Vulgar, all sexual connotations, saying nigger bitches needed to go back to the cotton field and things of that nature.” She’d complain, have the phone number changed. Then the calls would start again. Funeral wreaths with what appeared to be animal blood on them were found outside her dorm.
It’s unsurprising, then, that Barbour remembers the time fondly, remembers his classmate as “a very nice girl who happened to be African-American.” That’s all he ever had to experience.
For minority and poor Americans, the America that Barbour recognizes — where hard work gets success, where you can slack off a bit and still make it, where the police protect you, where every door is open to you — does not exist in the same way.
The self-congratulatory air of Barbour’s statements (all in service of his possible presidential run) reflects a broader culture in which the aggrieved party still feels prejudice, while the “merciful” dominant class believes it has already done enough. (see: the disparity between blacks and whites in the prevalence of racism)