In cinematic depictions, news broadcasting and a myriad of other forms of media, the South has typically been othered and pathologized by the rest of the United States as backwards and plagued by a monolithic culture of racialized violence. The images of Black student protestors being hosed and chased down by police dogs in 1960s Birmingham, Alabama or Oxford, Mississippi on national television have contributed to cementing this depiction into the national conscience. Yet, the race riots that broke out in Northern and Western segregated cities such as Detroit, Newark and Los Angeles during the same time period have been conveniently ignored in these geographical comparisons. Even now, the racist disenfranchisement that was endured by many in the supposedly enlightened liberal bastion of the North well into the 1980s—through segregated country clubs and racist, exclusionist housing policies—continues to be forgotten. This ahistorical myth-making of the states below the Mason-Dixon Line as a the one, true home of white supremacy is fundamentally revisionist. These beliefs abstract the reality that all regions of this country—in its liberal ethos, institutions and public spaces—are indelibly implicated in the violent racism that has dispossessed Black populations, indigenous tribes and other people of color for centuries. The debilitating nature of racism has never been geographically confined, instead its various forms and implications have crisscrossed the expanse of this country in different manifestations for centuries.
Even as these antiquated notions about racism are a symptom of Northern and Western moral elitism, they are also a product of classism. Popular culture conceptions of what a racist looks like are often bound up in caricatured imagery of redneck Confederate loyalists in rural, Southern areas. In the wake of the Trump election, the mythos of the angry poor white racist pushing him into the White House has continued to endure, despite the fact that 54 percent of college-educated white men voted for Trump. Racism is often filtered through a classist lens—it’s imagined as symptomatic of a lack of knowledge or a product of undereducation. The implications of this widespread myopic perspective are not only felt in our collective imaginations, they are experienced structurally in cities such as Chapel Hill and Carrboro, places imagined as liberal and educated, but also where the largest opportunity and achievement gaps between white students and students of color continue to persist.
And it’s felt on Duke’s campus too. In the wake of multiple racist incidents that have consumed our collective energies, and the ever-enduring financial disparities between Duke’s campus and the rest of Durham, we often fail to grasp that part of what makes Duke racist is not its location, but the fact that this university is so deeply organized around the production and accumulation of wealth, at the expense of poor black and brown people in (and beyond) Durham. As alum Zachary Faircloth, Trinity '18, wrote, “Duke is not unlike the old Southern planter class: it exists because of value extracted from the labor of poor, mostly Black and Brown people.” These racist extraction logics are not confined to state borders or the Appalachian mountain terrain; they are embedded within private, governmental and social scaffoldings across the United States. Duke’s foundational reliance on the labor of poor, Black and Brown people isn’t a geographically unique tradition—it’s an American institution.
Ultimately, racism is not a flaw unique to particular regional areas. To imagine that it is a uniquely Southern artifact is not only to enact historical revisionism, but to erase the existence of those who are both Southern and poor, Black, indigenous, brown, queer, trans—those who live and work here, as well as those who resist racism, settler colonialism, capitalism and cisheteronormativity everyday. Many white people struggle to admit the totalizing existence of racism, because to acknowledge its ubiquity necessitates a reckoning—an admission that they have benefitted from and identified with institutions that are the site of white supremacy. It means that white people, particularly those who imagine themselves as progressive, have to contend with the fact that racism does not always come neatly packaged in codified laws or swastikas. It also appears in the form of your favorite politician stereotyping Black men as “superpredators” and in broken-window policing. In order to truly address racist institutional violence we will need to deeply introspect—we will need to think critically about the everyday things we do that ensure white supremacy’s endurance. That type of conversation is not nearly as easy as pathologizing the South as the epitome of American racism. Instead, it is uncomfortable. It requires self-implication—and it requires an admission that this country you love so much is racist from coast to coast.