By Brenda G. Juarez
Is Massachusetts more racist than Mississippi? Chief Justice Roberts recently raised the issue of racism and the historical U.S. North-South divide to justify his argument against renewing sections of the Voting Act, which requires some jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination (particularly those of the South) to obtain federal approval before any changes to voting laws are made. Federal approval is no longer needed, so his logic goes, because such progress has been made in the fight against racism in those southern states that Massachusetts is now just as racist, or perhaps more racist than Mississippi, a state known for its White racial violence against African Americans—its bold, brutish, unapologetic forms of racial thugging. In short, according to the Roberts logic, racism is no longer a problem in the America.
In actuality, contrary to the conclusions of Chief Justice Roberts and many others, there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that racism does indeed still remain deeply embedded in U.S. society today. Race-based disparities in arrest rates, schooling outcomes, employment, access to quality healthcare and housing, and more suggest that race remains a significant factor structuring the lives and life chances of many Americans. That aside, let us take a moment to consider the other question raised by the arguments of Chief Justice Roberts—Is Massachusetts more racist than Mississippi?
For most people in the U.S., this seems to be a ridiculous question best answered with a resounding “No.” Massachusetts, of course, is a key player within the regionally-based, historically-established paragon of racial righteousness, well known for its part in pushing forward anti-slavery sentiments and endeavors. By contrast, they are often presumed to be anything but a racial thug.
Yet, Frederick Douglass—the great Abolitionist that he was, did not appear to be completely convinced of any obviousness of a negative answer with respects to the northern states. In his famous 4th of July speech, for example, he wondered aloud to the audience members in Rochester, New York if his listeners and those Abolitionists whom had invited him to speak at that meeting on that particular momentous holiday were trying to insult him in asking him to speak on the matter of freedom. After all, July 4th was a day that he could not celebrate as his brothers and sisters still languished in the chains of chattel slavery in other parts of the country.
Like the Cadillac, to paraphrase Malcolm X, racism in the U.S. continues to come out in new models. Racial thuggish-ness is constantly updating and emerging in ranging variations of patterned, race-based, systemic exclusions. Massachusetts, often defined and self-defined in some ways as better educated and, apparently, more culturally and otherwise refined than Mississippi, has in some ways gone about racial thugging using approaches that have regularly been less overt, but no less effective than the more bodily-directed approaches adopted by states in the South. As part of a colonial relationship, the South and North are dependent on one another, but in different ways, impressive fortunes were made off the backs of enslaved Blacks in the cotton trade and brought home to Massachusetts from northern-owned cotton mills and businesses located in Mississippi and Alabama. The Fugitive Slave Bill of 1850 was fiercely enforced in Massachusetts, even as anti-slavery sentiment circulated. Law abiding citizens regularly followed the letter and spirit of this law, which required them to refuse food and shelter to enslaved runaways. And in later generations, buses were burned in Massachusetts to protest the racial integration of classrooms.
Officially presumed to be the genie bottle from which equality, freedom, justice and other democratic ideals have erupted to fill the United States, Massachusetts has yet to realize the ideal of a beacon of racial righteousness put forth as its official self-definition and public image. As one of my students has argued, the apparent progressiveness of Massachusetts, in taking the lead in matters against systemic exclusions based on sexuality, regularly serves as a screen that obscures matters of patterned racial exclusions.
Following Malcolm X, anything South of Canada is Southern; the South is a rattle snake and the North is a grizzly bear—both will kill you.