Racism in West Virginia? Does the Pope wear Prada?

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I think Alaska Governor Sarah Palin said it best, during the vice-presidential debate. “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” Palin told her opponent, Senator Joe Biden.
But I would direct those words to another Joe: Governor Joe Manchin, who is demanding a Hollywood apology for discrediting the state and its residents by inserting a racially-charged scene between WVU fans and the Syracuse team in the movie, “The Express.” In particular, a hateful audience portrayed as WVU fans in the movie called the black Orangemen “coons” and that other word, the “N” word, which I personally find outrageous and offensive.
Governor Manchin told Universal Studios it was “an unfair portrayal of West Virginians.” I like the governor but with all due respect, I think he’s wrong. That’s because I’ve done some informal polling since I learned about Manchin’s protests. Plus, I’ve seen racism here firsthand.

The Dominion Post story quoting Manchin appeared in the Saturday, Oct. 11, 2008 issue. That night, I attended a live music show in Kingwood, W.Va., where I met another white woman who takes exception to the Governor’s claims. Basically, this woman said it doesn’t help our state to ignore the racism that’s part of our history—and which still exists. In essence, she said Governor Manchin would be doing everyone a favor if he would admit there’s a problem and then take steps to fight it.
Because I’ve seen and heard racism throughout my life, I’d have to agree. My father was prejudiced, but my mother wasn’t. He was born and bred in Jackson County, W.Va., while she was a California girl. Maybe that’s the difference; maybe not. And even with all his prejudicial flaws, Dad did like and respect some blacks, including the family friends of my mother’s, who visited us in the late 1970s. They stayed with us for a weekend when they were considering moving here.
However, after touring our small town, they decided our part of the Mountain State wasn’t right for them. (They lived in Berkeley County, which, being next door to Washington, D.C., had a large black population.) Maybe that’s because they sensed the racism all around us—Preston County had very few blacks, and most of them then lived in one small neighborhood, on the other side of the tracks. (I kid you not.)
This was the same family who opened up their home to me when my parents moved to Amman, Jordan, so I could finish summer school. Their two sons were close to my own age, and treated me with nothing less than dignity and respect, as if I was a sister to them. I can’t imagine them treating me like the white “family” treated Megan Williams, a young black woman who in 2007 had the misfortune of moving into that family’s West Virginia home.
Williams, for anyone living under a rock, is the young black woman who was kidnapped, raped, tortured and otherwise assaulted by six West Virginians. Police discovered her at a Logan County mobile home Sept. 8, 2007. In addition to being confined under a sink during part of her ordeal, Williams “was sodomized with a stick and a noose was tied around her neck for lengthy periods.”
My black friends later came to visit my children and me sometime during 1994. The younger son married a white girl, and I’ve never forgotten what happened while we were standing in line at a local grocery store. A white man and his wife were watching us when he directed some blatant and rude racial comment at my friends. I wanted to smack him, but doing so would have only brought me down to his level. My friends, by comparison, weren’t righteously indignant; they took it in stride and refused to allow his ignorance to spoil what was an otherwise beautiful day.
I’m not sure if that was before or after the cross burning that took place in Newburg, a mile from where I grew up. It was set aflame on the front lawn of a local couple. I grew up with the girl; her “crime” was in marrying a black man. Until that moment, I largely believed such things were the stuff of Hollywood movies. Later, I heard about other crosses being burned in our rural county. And recently, someone told me the Ku Klux Klan still holds meetings up in the neighboring mountains not far from here.
Even more alarming, several months ago a high-powered executive told me she was supporting Senator Hillary Clinton for president, because there was no way West Virginia men would elect a black man. She said this after hearing a group of men talking about their decision to support Clinton. More recently, one of my daughters heard people in our region say Senator Barak Obama will be assassinated if he becomes president.
As disturbing as that is, it’s even more so when I realize the people my daughter speaks of aren’t alone: Other people have said the same thing. If that’s not racism, I don’t know what is.
More recently, while acting in the capacity of a paid journalist, a man said the “N” word, speaking derogatorily of blacks in general. I was offended not only that such attitudes still exist, but also because people still voice them. Which goes to show these racial attitudes are strongly entrenched.
So my apologies to Governor Manchin and Dick Easterly, the Syracuse quarterback who played with Heisman winner Ernie Davis. In an interview with West Virginia Public Radio, Easterly said, “there’s no question in the 50s and 60s throughout the country there was racial tension … all over.”
Racism is not a thing of the past; it’s still alive and well, as the above experiences reveal. That being said, it might be good to remember that no Hollywood movie is based totally in fact. Sometimes scenes are fabricated to show the flavor of a person, a locale, or an idea. I’d have to say that the fictional scene depicting West Virginia as a racist state may have come from what happened to Megan Williams.
The violence she experienced has been called “one of the worst hate crimes in United States history.” In comparison, the fictional WVU fans make our state look far better than what Megan endured. (Her experience led not just to a march in Charleston-the state Human Rights Commission also traveled to Logan County to hear other residents complain about what they believe to be prejudicial treatment in that area of the state.)
Now back to my informal poll: I went to see “The Express,” and questioned a few blacks along the way. I asked a group of college guys I passed if they had experienced racism in West Virginia. “No, not like that (as portrayed in the movie),” they said. Then they said, “It’s a lot worse in Virginia, or the Carolinas.”
I guess I should be happy that the Mountain State is somewhat better than our sister state, but I’m not. And just what does “not like that” mean? I think a black woman working for a security firm got it right. “It’s not obvious, it’s more subtle. But it’s here. You can see it by the way people act when you pass by them,” she said.
Apparently, the farther south you go, the worse it gets, and the more blatant it becomes. But here in West Virginia, it’s a little different. Here, racism isn’t usually about cross burnings or raping black women. Instead it’s subtle. The truth is that few people here will come right out and call a black person the “N” word to their face, but they sure will talk about it with their white friends and family.
I love West Virginia; it’s a beautiful state with a rich history and strong, tenacious people who can be as tender as they are tough. Yet denying that racism happens here does nothing. Not for our state, or for anybody who has been its victim. And it’s about as effective as saying sexual abuse and domestic violence (two other components in Megan’s experience ) don’t happen here in Almost Heaven.
Sadly, the state is steeped in denial. It’s one of the things we do best.

Categories: Racism


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