Although I’ve been in the South for over two years now, there are still some things that perplex me. It certainly isn’t the fairy tale underworld I’d envisioned as a child – one in which I was likely to get lynched by toothless grizzlies for being brown. There’s a positive vibe at first glance. People seem warm, open and mild-mannered; more so than in my native California anyway. Although I’ve found very little racism directed at me, it quietly lingers in a very tense but often unnoticed way.
The segregation in the South, often spoken of as self-imposed, seems to stem from the education system, in which students are taught that racism is a legendary beast of the past. Yet the black community seems to be much poorer than its counterparts within the white community, and this builds certain resentment. The poor white communities, meanwhile, often retain the most outspoken version of racist Southern culture. (I remember feeling extremely awkward at having been outside my house with a friend as his father hollered, “Boy, that nigger sure got his ass whooped, didn’t he?” well within earshot of our black neighbor across the street, much to my embarrassment.)
People who recognize that racism persists are quick to blame others rather than themselves. The blacks blame the whites for their ignorance and audacity to pretend away the very real problem of racism. The poor whites blame the blacks for taking advantage of their ancestors’ slavery. Meanwhile, the middle class whites consider the blacks to be antisocial bullies. Interestingly, these subjects rarely come out in everyday conversation, yet it seems that every day somebody is eager to speak to me of them.
I believe this to be because of my non-enemy color. In California, there are all different colors in large numbers. In Arkansas, it is almost entirely a sea of black and white, with a few scatterings of brown and yellow here and there, though notably of late; the number of Latinos has increased. Still, the problem of racism has, throughout the history of the South, been two-dimensional. Sure, the Ku Klux Klan hated the Catholics and Jews, and Louisiana persecuted a large Italian immigrant community during the turn of the last century, but the very real and remembered problem is the black and white one. It seems to have translated, in my case, into a view that as long as I am not the color of the ‘bad guy’, I might love to hear what the ‘good guy’ has to say. That interesting position of brown guy in the middle has led me, almost accidentally, to a position as a key anti-racist activist at the University of Central Arkansas.
The revelations began during the Jena Six actions. I began by showing up at NAACP meetings and working on a plan of action with their chapter leader and two coalition coordinators. Together with the Demand Justice panel at UCA, and signed on by the Young Democrats and Students for the Propagation of Black Culture, we coordinated not only a carpooling to Jena on September 20th, but also a walkout and a march here on campus.
Our plans did not go smoothly. We originally planned the walkout to go in concordance with the beginning of the trial of Mychal Bell. It was decided that students standing in solidarity with the Jena Six ought to walk out of their classes (normally ending at 9:15 that day) from 8:50 to 9:00. From there, the three of us in charge (UCA NAACP president Patrick Jacob, UCA NAACP chaplain DeKevious Wilson and myself, all of whom were actually planning to go to Jena rather than stay on to oversee the UCA actions) arranged for the students to gather around the large flagpole at UCA for a silent prayer in honor of the Jena Six. In order for this to happen smoothly and peacefully, I e-mailed the deans and heads of departments to alert them to the fact that there would be a walkout. We hoped that in this way, the chance of miscommunication and disrespect would be greatly diminished. We also planned for the march to take place during our “X-period”, an hour when there is no class at all. On Monday, the 17th, the NAACP organized a table in our student center to educate students about the Jena Six and our planned activities.
But as soon as the staff was onto us, it seemed we were in for a battle. First, my girlfriend noticed that a few days after the e-mail, a career fair was announced, and it was to take place on September 20th during X-period. I had a feeling it was deliberate, but I couldn’t be sure. On Monday, the 17th, we ran into more troubles. I received a call from Patrick Jacob who indicated that “there’s some kind of conflict and I think its BS.” I met with him and walked into the office, where DeKevious Wilson and an early middle-aged black lady awaited us.
The lady offered us candy bars and sodas and went on to tell us that UCA had planned and paid dearly for a civil rights activist from the ’60s to come and speak in the student center during X-period on Thursday and that it would be a good idea for us to reschedule our activities. This outraged all of us – Thursday was the day of action and Thursday it would be. She then asked us if we could do our march at night. I said, “Absolutely not. Why wait for the time when nobody’s at school to try to let them know?” She replied, “Maybe we can coordinate our actions together. After all, they’re celebrating the same thing, you know, the 50th anniversary [of the Little Rock Nine] and all.” I retorted, “No, you celebrate the past all you want. We’re working on the present and the future. The Jena Six story just proves that the civil rights movement is anything but a thing of the past.”
Nonetheless, after two missed class periods and a long series of discussion, first with this lady, then with another black lady (the head of minority services) we came to an uneasy, tentative agreement. As much as Patrick and I pressed for the speaker to stand with us in the name of civil rights, this was impossible because rumor had it he was an elderly gentleman who wouldn’t want to march. We offered a golf cart that our UCA Police Department escort could provide. The minority service people still didn’t like that idea. They kept using their need for professionalism and careful handling of the situation for every refutation of our sensible ideas. So the tentative agreement came down to a likelihood that the march would be shortened (which didn’t sit right with any of the three activists in that office), but with one stipulation. In addition to the candy bars and sodas, we had received invitations to a luncheon an hour before the march with the school president, the guest speaker and several other ridiculously overpaid bigwigs. Patrick and I had to decline since we would be in Jena, but DeKevious, all of a sudden unable to go because of an art project, accepted the invitation. It was decided that DeKevious would speak to this gentleman to see if he would like to march with us and we left it at that.
And so it came to pass that while the entourage of local YDSers, NAACP representatives, Demand Justice panelists and so on marched through the streets of Jena, a well-publicized series of actions took place at UCA as well. Victoria Vela, our current secretary/treasurer, contacted the media, which covered the actions as did our school newspaper. The school newspaper article, written by a friend of mine, showed a picture of Dekevious leading the march of over 100 people. This made me swell with pride. Upon reading the article, I found that the march had indeed been shortened, and that from the end of the march, the students filed into the student center to hear the guest speaker. That was all I knew until yesterday, when I ran into Carmesha Martin, UCA NAACP coalitions coordinator. I asked her how the on-campus actions went and she responded positively; but when I asked her about the speaker, she informed me, “Chachi, you would have been MAD! He was an old white dude talking all slow and boring. Everybody was moving toward the back while he was still talking! Man, it was…I ain’t even gonna say.” I asked if he had spoken of the Jena Six. She said, “Yeah, he said, ‘Uhhh…you know…there was some…uh…white kids…and they jumped a black kid…and that’s not good,’” and she rolled her eyes in disgust.
Upon further research I’ve found that career services and minority services are quite close at this school and though I still can’t prove anything, I believe that this was an attempt by our school to curb our enthusiasm for activism. Now this may be out of an overt racism, but I think it’s more out of fear, thanks to the neo-racism of the South. It’s evolved from “They’re not even people” to “Too many of them at once are scary and they might kill people”. I wish I could have showed them what Jena looked like on that day. I surfed through a crowd of tens of thousands, and by many accounts the population was 98% black. The demonstration was peaceful and jubilant. Non-blacks were greatly respected and thanked for taking part in the march and the struggle. The atmosphere was lighthearted and festive and people were helping each other out. Sure, there was anger and passion, but well directed, not at all that stereotypical angry mob of gold-toothed thugs tearing all the buildings and residents to smithereens.
Meanwhile, our YDS chapter now contains a few dedicated black students that give all indication of being leaders that are here to stay. Also, it’s now become quite common to see a few non-black faces at NAACP meetings here. It’s a small step, but it helps. If our great leaders, of many colors, can work hand-in-hand locally, we may just be able to start something beautiful on a grander scale. Yesterday, three representatives from our chapter spoke to our new student government – a white female, a Latino male and a black male. This was not even planned, but the diversity in our activist circles here in Arkansas is finally beginning to grow.
Noel “Chachi” Camara is an activist from San Francisco who studies global politics and history. He sits on the YDS National Coordinating Committee.