I heard a fascinating NPR piece about an integrated prom in Charleston, Mississippi. The Charleston high school has had segregated proms since it was forced to integrate. This year, with influence and financial backing from Morgan Freeman and the right school board, the school put on an “integrated prom”. I know that segregation still occurs, but I didn’t realize that we could have such explicit and unbridled remnants of Jim Crow segregation in a government institution
Although the school had an integrated prom there were still parents who decided that they wanted a “White” prom. In an interview a White student was at a meeting for the White prom, where she heard a mother say, “I don’t want any of those niggers rubbing up against my daughter” (what a historically loaded statement).
What I found most stimulating about this piece is the attitude of the students. Some of the children that attended the prom had to go against their parents wishes. And most students really didn’t think much about the fact that they were going to be prom with people of a different race. They went to school with them and played sports with them, what was the difference?
However, there was an interesting element in the comments of the White students. Now, this was by no means a statistically representative sample, but the White students that were interviewed didn’t voice that they had felt any regret for having a segregated prom or that there was something wrong with a segregated prom.
At first, I assumed that this was a “White privilege” issue. The parents driving the segregated prom were the White parents and White students were not the ones being systematically excluded, Black students were. White students wanted to have an integrated prom because it just made sense because everything else at school was integrated. Conversely, the Black students benefited from the prom because it was a method of regaining their personhood and their worth.
I still believe this to be true, but it also seemed the Black students that were interviewed had fallen in into the “that is just the way it is attitude”. They accepted segregation because that was the context that they understood and even though there were negative ramifications, they were buried underneath the normalcy of segregation.
The change that occurred was not because individuals stood up and said that something was wrong (the Whites were indifferent and the Blacks were entrenched), but because there was a systematic, institutional change. We often – especially in the evangelical Christian world – underestimate the value of institutional change. We concentrate so much on individual reconciliation. But individual reconciliation can be prohibited by the way the system is set up.
Reconciliation is two sided. This integrated prom at Charleston High School will not, by itself, spark reconciliation in the city as a whole. But changing the system gives individuals the opportunity to personally reconcile with one another. These to elements together are what cause real change.