At the restaurant, Wendell told me stories from his family’s history. There was the time his Catholic grandmother and the other black children stood in the nave of the Catholic church in rural Assumption Parish, receiving catechism lessons from the white priest—religious education was a separate but equal endeavor back then—and white boys standing in the choir loft urinated on their heads.
“The priest barely said a word to those kids,” Wendell told me. “My grandmother never forgot that.”
He spoke about his mother’s family, who lived in a country enclave on the bayou. During the Depression, a black family somehow scraped together enough money to buy a car. No one else there had an automobile, and the family promised to use it to help the neighbors.
Two nights later, the Klan rode up the lane on horses, carrying torches. They ordered all the black families to present themselves, then they torched the car. “Let this be a lesson to you niggers,” the Klan leader told them. All the Klansmen were masked, but the black people knew exactly who they were. This was a small town.
This is what black people faced from their oh-so-civilized, oh-so righteous white neighbours, not so long ago.
But that was then, and this is now.
It isn’t the white man whose most likely to kill successful black American. No: it’s their fellow black American who is by far the greater threat.
For another thing, it is self-evident that white Americans have changed their attitude, even in Louisiana – and to claim otherwise is to merely lie.
On the long drive back to the hills, I thought about how I had never heard of Pontchartrain Park, indeed how none of us outside the city ever heard about its black middle class. When race is in the news, it’s almost always about poor black people and their problems. African-Americans who live middle-class lives are all but invisible to many in white America.
Just as many of us who came up outside of New Orleans had our opinions formed largely by media reports of its violence, the history of the city’s black middle class was hidden by its simple success. People who go to work day in and day out, coach softball in their neighborhoods, and raise their kids without drama never make the news.
You can be certain that in the Old South, there would be no middle-class blacks… none left alive, anyways.
It has made a difference. When I watch the news and see racial conflict reported, I am much less likely to fall back on familiar ideological framing to explain what happened. In instances of police violence against African-Americans, I used to side reflexively with the police. Not anymore. Wendell’s story about how a Louisiana state trooper once humiliated him on his way to his uncle’s funeral, in front of his nieces, weighs heavily on my mind, as does the long and ugly history of the law mistreating blacks. In my research, I discovered that in my parish, well within the memory of people alive today, a judge simultaneously served as head of the local Klan.
I have never had an interest in defending the display of the Confederate flag, but I have always explained to puzzled non-Southerners that the emblem is more emotionally complicated than they may think. It’s not uniquely about race hatred. But when the issue came up again after the Charleston massacre, there was no question to me that the flag had to go. I intuited what that flag must mean to men like the war hero Amos Pierce, and I decided to stand with them.
It will not be much longer before the last Americans with any real memory of segregation pass away. I once asked Lloyd Edwards if he had any idea why the older black men and women of my parish would not talk publicly about the civil rights struggle there. “Fear,” he said. His tone of voice that indicated surprise that I even asked.
There are real reasons for black hostility, when it comes to the police. Those with power has casually forgotten all about it, with a wave of the hand… but those without power remember.
But the thing is, it isn’t the KKK that’s the primarily source of black deaths today.
It isn’t even the police, lawless as they can be upon (way too many) occasions.
And to claim that slavery is the cause of black dysfunction – when black families and black culture was far healthier before the onset of the welfare state – is simply a lie.
Sadly, far too many urban blacks are deeply invested in the Jim Crow welfare state to get out of their trap, before the great suffering of the Great Default destroys the welfare state payouts – starting with the poorest blacks first, and then work its way out to the ‘white welfare state’ of Medicaid, Social Security, the corporate subsidies, etc.