Southern blacks have a practice of lowering their voices and pointing to the pale of their palms when they talk to other blacks about white people. It is, of course, not something all Southern black people do, but enough make the gesture for it to be noticeable and startling for me, a black man raised in Ohio. "They probably didn't hire you because you're black. You know how They are," somebody might say with a subtle tap at the pink inside of one hand. "They." Tap, tap.
The simple code is an obvious holdover from the days when being black meant one had to conspire under the constant threat of white terror to remain alive. Saying something, anything, untoward about a white person could cost your life or livelihood. The gesture persists in small doses, perhaps, because that threat does as well.
I was reminded of The Tap recently while reporting in Charleston, South Carolina. I was there like so many other journalists to cover the aftermath of the mass shooting that left nine black Americans dead in the basement of their church. I spent a week travelling that city, one I’d never visited before, talking mostly to black residents about their thoughts, feelings, and memory—their trauma.
A lot of tapping happened during those conversations. I learned how They don’t think much differently from the man accused of the shooting. I learned about the Confederate flag that flew over the state capitol building was not a holdover from the Civil War, but how They raised it in the 1960s in response to movements to integrate in the ‘60s. All the black service people—at the Hilton, at Waffle House, at Exxon—I encountered denied my requests for interview out of fear of what They, in the form of their supervisors, might think, and how they’d react. To be frank, it was hard to not feel like a free man among captives.
ccording to the U.S. Census Bureau, 16 states make up the South: Florida, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas. Now, the South is not now what it was in the days before the Civil War or even the Civil Rights Movement. That should go without saying. It should also go without saying that much of the racism that pervades the South exists throughout the rest of the country. As an editorial in The Washington Post argued recently, America’s persistent race problem is not Dixie’s fault. The South, however, is set apart from the rest of the country by the degree to which anti-black racism still drives policy and the way of life in the region. The result of this toxic dynamic between whites and blacks is, yes, a constant low-humming terror for Southern blacks, and a sociopolitical structure that renders the region a lesser part of America.
I was born and raised just above the Mason-Dixon Line, in Ohio, a place to which enslaved blacks would escape. I've always been proud of that. Of course, I did not end up in Ohio because my people broke away from a plantation. The reality is less epic but perhaps just as brave: they were escaping the Carolinas during the brutal days of Jim Crow. I admire that they had whatever it took to leave. I struggle, however, to understand what it took for others to stay.
I’ve asked this question of my friend Howie. He is a Georgian through and through. His family is so Georgia that his mother shares a name with the state, the place of his birth and her birth and her mother's birth. I met Howie during my first year at Morehouse College in Atlanta. He’s tried to help me make sense of the South ever since.
In conversation, we settle on “unbothered” to describe the approach Southern blacks have to daily life. It is perhaps the best way to describe what it takes to see Confederate flags all around you but still have the audacity to open a business, build a church, run for office—to live.
Here’s the South by the numbers: In analyzing ballot accessibility, the Center for American Progress overwhelmingly gave poor ratings to states in the region. In fact, 10 of 16 Southern states received “F” ratings for their inability to deliver reasonable voter wait times, easy voter registration and early voting and for the restrictive impact of their voter ID laws. According to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, 13 of the 16 southern states exceed the national rate of 10 gun-related deaths per 100,000 people. The South has also consistently had a higher rate of incarceration than the other regions of the United States, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Eight states rank among the top 10 with the highest incarceration rates, according to figures from the Department of Justice. Thirteen of the 16 states rank in the top 20.
Nine of the southern states are among the ten poorest in our country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, based on the percentage of their population living below the federal poverty line. Twelve of sixteen are among the 20 poorest states. According to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics National Vital Statistics Report, 12 of the southern states are among the 20 states with the highest infant mortality rates. Eight are among the bottom 10 states nationwide in the share of adults with bachelor's degrees.
The condition of the South is what we as a nation get for half-assing Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement, for coming close to establishing democracy in the region but flinching when it came time to tackle white supremacy. In essence, we are hemorrhaging democracy in the South and the wound is the region’s anti-black racism. Southern policymakers know this. Moreover, they’ve been leveraging it for centuries.
The most storied evidence of this came from Republican strategist Lee Atwater. In 1981, Atwater was working as an aide in Ronald Reagan's White House after a decade of influence in South Carolina Republican Party. (It is then perhaps then no coincidence that 11 of the 16 southern states have GOP-controlled executive and legislative branches.) He’d later go on to run the 1988 campaign of George H. W. Bush and chair the RNC. In an interview with a political scientist at Case Western Reserve University, Atwater summarized the GOP’s Southern Strategy as thus:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites…. ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’”
While the state of the South weakens us as a nation, nobody suffers more than southern blacks. In fact, the southern condition is the essentially the black American condition with more than half, or 55% of the nation’s black population living in the South. The South’s subpar education, limited healthcare, over-incarceration, voter suppression, ineffective gun laws and persistent poverty contribute to the sobering fact that life expectancy for blacks living in the South isfive years shorter than the rest of the country, according to Measure of America, a project of the Social Science Research Council, just over a year shorter than that for blacks in the rest of the country, about three-and-a-half years shorter than that for southern whites, and almost six years shorter than that for white Americans living outside of the South. In fact, citizens of Kuwait, Croatia, Mexico, Libya, and Vietnam all live longer than black Americans in the South.
When I asked Howie why he and so many other Southern blacks don’t just leave in the face of those grim statistics, he answered, “You know those crazy rednecks who won't leave when the hurricane is coming? It's like that, but deeper, ‘cause this disaster wasn't natural; we should be able to talk to it.”
And talk to it, bargain with it, beat it back is what black Southerners have done for more than a century. Some even attempt to elude it by tapping their palms rather than speak its name.
Nineteen days ago, the government of South Carolina decided to remove the confederate flag from the grounds of its state capitol. The crowd assembled for the moment chanted, “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” as the flag descended its pole. It was as though the Union army had finally reclaimed the Palmetto State 150 years after the end of the Civil War. While The South may be ground zero for America’s race problem, the region doesn’t have a monopoly on racial tension, racist sentiment, or un-reconciled history. There are, ultimately, only degrees of difference between the contents of Dylann Roof’s manifesto and, say, some of the emails and text messages sent between police officers in Missouri, New York, California, Ohio, and Indiana.
As the South struggles to come to terms with America in the 21st century, my hope is that as a nation, we continue to come to terms with it. We can’t become the America that we claim to be without doing that work, instead allowing the entire region and its residents to languish. After all, as shameful as it is that South Carolina’s elected officials let a symbol of treason and anti-black terror fly over their statehouse for decades, what does it say about the rest of the country, which just looked the other way?