Integration, southern style

I was driving down to Alabama from Charlotte the other day and it occurred to me: the route we were taking almost exactly duplicated the route Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy took in Driving Miss Daisy. We stopped for the night in a town called LaGrange, Georgia. It looked like a typical southern town, and I chuckled to myself that things probably hadn’t changed much there since the Miss Daisy days.

Then we went to dinner at the local Ruby Tuesday’s. Seemed like the usual sort of place — but with a difference. Unlike in my “enlightened” college-town suburb of Davidson, North Carolina, nearly every table in the joint was integrated. The table next to us featured a white woman, her brown-skinned daughter, and a set of ebony grandparents, aunts, and uncles. This was the sort of gathering that would have been rudely shoved out of town just a few decades back, and now gathered no notice whatsoever except from presumptuous transplanted Yankees like myself.

Why, in Davidson, don’t we see blacks and whites sitting together at the same table? Why do we rarely see it even in New York? I suspect the answer is only indirectly related to racial insensitivity. In New York, there is a high level of de facto segregation due to a history of racial prejudice and the resultant economic disparity it created. While race relations in Davidson are generally quite civil, our town sees a similar divide: it’s a wealthy suburb, most of whose residents are either professors at Davidson College or bankers or lawyers who work in nearby Charlotte. There are a few blacks on the “poor” side of town, but they typically only encounter whites at the post office or the barber shop. Whites and blacks typically don’t mix because they come from different economic classes, not because of racial prejudice.

In a place like LaGrange, Georgia, I suspect there are fewer economic differences between whites and blacks than there are in Davidson or New York. Imagine a world where most places were more like LaGrange and less like Davidson. I think it would look a lot like Martin Luther King’s dream — just appearing about fifty years later than he hoped it would.

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