« | Home | »

In Oxford, Mississippi

Tags:

In Ajax bar in Oxford, Mississippi, they muted the baseball commentary during the Obama-Romney debate and left the game playing on the screen near the door while the candidates sparred on the big screen over the bar. We couldn’t make out the nitty-gritty of what they were saying, just the mood music: Mitt v. Barack sounded like marching band Sousa v. the Well-Tempered Clavier.

Oxford has two black presidents these days. Besides Obama there’s Kimbrely Dandridge, an African-American woman elected in February to head the student body of the university of Mississippi, which has its main campus here. The timing had resonance. A few days ago was the 50th anniversary of the enrolment of the previously all-white university’s first black student, James Meredith. When a mob of enraged segregationists tried to block Meredith, President Kennedy ordered in federal troops – the biggest deployment of federal troops on US soil since the Civil War – and in the battle that followed, two people were killed. Meredith and Kennedy prevailed and formal segregation was ended, only for a long struggle to begin by black students to be accepted as the intellectual and social equals of their white peers.

Outside the bar on the night of the debate, in the soft humidity of a southern evening in fall, a group of well-to-do young female students chatted by their cars, drinking sodas and exchanging hugs and jokes. The University of Mississippi, Ole Miss, has a reputation as a fun place of parties and football for the children of the wealthy. Three of the students were white; two were black. They hung out there together in quiet unafraid peace on the old town square where a monument to the Confederate dead of the Civil War still stands prominent under the magnolia trees, with its inscription, ‘They gave their lives in a just and holy cause’ – the cause, to be clear, of freedom for people of one skin colour to enslave people of another.

The leader of the campaign to build the monument in the 1900s was William Faulkner’s mother. There may still be places in Oxford where people’s race makes them feel unwelcome, but the town’s public schools are racially mixed and integrated to a degree unimaginable in Faulkner’s time. This is not the case west of Oxford, in the communities of the Delta, between the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers, where the segregation of officially sanctioned racism has been replaced by the segregation of personal choice and economic power. White small farmers have been driven off the land by the rise of corporate farms; the remaining white families, who tend to be better off, send their children to private schools, and the division of the communities is perpetuated by the self-separation of one from the other.

The political trajectory of Obama’s presidency began at least partly as the celebration of a singular American triumph against racism. Four years later, Mitt Romney’s incredible division of America into the 47 per cent of the damned and the 53 per cent of the saved not on racial or religious but financial grounds confirms that racism is, and always was, a subset of the mixture of contempt, fear and shame any established prosperous class feels towards its poor counterpart. What a hard road of overcoming prejudice to get to this point, only to reach the start of an even harder one: where Romney and Obama face each other not as white Mormon to black Protestant but as neo-aristocrat to salaried professional.

Comments on “In Oxford, Mississippi”

  1. rwhalley says:

    Nice post, but I think you’ll find racism is not only rooted in a “established prosperous class”. It’s the people that class have fucked over who find it simplest to blame others for their woes. The established posperous class just find it in their interests to encourage that.

Comment on this post

Log in or register to post a comment.


  • Recent Posts

    RSS – posts

  • Contributors

  • Recent Comments

    • andymartinink on Reacher v. Parker: Slayground definitely next on my agenda. But to be fair to Lee Child, as per the Forbes analysis, there is clearly a massive collective reader-writer ...
    • Robert Hanks on Reacher v. Parker: And in Breakout, Parker, in prison, teams up with a black guy to escape; another white con dislikes it but accepts the necessity; Parker is absolutely...
    • Robert Hanks on Reacher v. Parker: Parker may not have the integrity and honesty of Marlowe, but I'd argue that Richard Stark writes with far more of both than Raymond Chandler does: Ch...
    • Christopher Tayler on Reacher v. Parker: Good to see someone holding up standards. The explanation is that I had thoughts - or words - left over from writing about Lee Child. (For Chandler se...
    • Geoff Roberts on Reacher v. Parker: ..."praised in the London Review of Books" Just read the article on Lee Child in a certain literary review and was surprised to find this rave notice...

    RSS – comments

  • Contact

  • Blog Archive

  • From the LRB Archive

    Chris Lehmann: The Candidates
    18 June 2015

    ‘Every one of the Republican candidates can be described as a full-blown adult failure. These are people who, in most cases, have been granted virtually every imaginable advantage on the road to success, and managed nevertheless to foul things up along the way.’

    Hugh Pennington:
    The Problem with Biodiversity
    10 May 2007

    ‘As a medical microbiologist, for example, I have spent my career fighting biodiversity: my ultimate aim has been to cause the extinction of harmful microbes, an objective shared by veterinary and plant pathologists. But despite more than a hundred years of concentrated effort, supported by solid science, smallpox has been the only success.’

    Jeremy Harding: At the Mexican Border
    20 October 2011

    ‘The battle against illegal migration is a domestic version of America’s interventions overseas, with many of the same trappings: big manpower commitments, militarisation, pursuit, detection, rendition, loss of life. The Mexican border was already the focus of attention before 9/11; it is now a fixation that shows no signs of abating.’

    James Meek: When the Floods Came
    31 July 2008

    ‘Last July, a few days after the floods arrived, with 350,000 people still cut off from the first necessity of life, Severn Trent held its annual general meeting. It announced profits of £325 million, and confirmed a dividend for shareholders of £143 million. Not long afterwards the company, with the consent of the water regulator Ofwat, announced that it wouldn’t be compensating customers: all would be charged as if they had had running water, even when they hadn’t.’

Advertisement Advertisement