FEBRUARY 20, 2014
CLARENCE THOMAS recalled his youth during a recent speech at Palm Beach Atlantic University. To his knowledge, the Supreme Court Justice said, he was the first black student to attend an all-white school in Savannah, Georgia. Even so, his race scarcely raised an eyebrow. He was making a point about our contemporary habit of discussing racial issues openly, which, he suggests, often points to an alarming sensitivity to race. “Now, name a day it doesn’t come up,” he said. “Differences in race, differences in sex, somebody doesn’t look at you right, somebody says something. Everybody is sensitive. If I had been as sensitive as that in the 1960s, I’d still be in Savannah.”
Thomas also equated, though perhaps unintentionally, public discussion of race with public expressions of racism. And the converse would appear to be equally true. Ignoring racial difference, as apparently was done during his school days in Savannah, reflects a harmony between races that we lose when we talk about it openly and often — places, you know, like the liberal elite northeast. “The worst I have been treated was by northern liberal elites. […] the worst things that have been done to me, the worst things that have been said about me, [were] by northern liberal elites, not by the people of Savannah, Georgia,” Thomas said.
All of this is odd for a man born in Pin Point, Georgia: a salt-marsh enclave south of downtown Savannah founded by former slaves who spoke Gullah, a creole unique to the Georgia and South Carolina lowcountry. After his scorched-earth “March to the Sea” in 1864, General William T. Sherman issued Field Order 15 in Savannah. It granted some 400,000 acres along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts to 10,000 “freedman.” President Andrew Johnson, a native Southerner, rescinded much of that order after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, returning most of it back to white owners who would later lease it to black sharecroppers. Even if rarely mentioned in school, as Thomas claims, the notion that race is a non-issue there isn’t credible. Race, like caste in India and class in Great Britain, was the original thread in the fabric of Southern life.
Yet I believe one claim. As a reporter for Savannah’s daily newspaper years ago, I rarely witnessed race discussed publicly. Not in the media, not among city officials, not among civic leaders. When it did arise, it was met swiftly by a battery of denial, equivocation and misinformation. The reason was plain to see. When I moved there in 2001, the Hostess City had grossed approximately $1 billion in tourism revenue. Consequently, the view among stakeholders of Savannah’s image — which is to say, anyone involved in public affairs — was that the city was colorblind. Sure, most readily conceded, racism structured public life years ago. But no longer. Like Atlanta under legendary Mayor William Hartsfield, Savannah was too busy to hate.
But the absence of race from the public sphere stood in contrast to its ubiquitous presence in everyday life, as when the white landlady reassured me, without prompting, that the plumber scheduled to come to the house wasn’t black; or when my white neighbor explained why black folks don’t like dogs. Race was also present in the layout of the city. Downtown Savannah’s celebrated 18th-century architecture, built by slaves, was inhabited mostly by whites; the federal housing projects bookending the city’s east and west sides were inhabited mostly by blacks. And it found expression in the city’s culture. The St. Patrick’s Day Parade and the Martin Luther King Day Parade are two of Savannah’s biggest annual events. One is enjoyed almost entirely by whites while the other is enjoyed in its entirety by blacks.
So the absence of race in the public sphere didn’t connote an enlightened view of race, as Clarence Thomas invites us to believe. In fact, Savannah has the same racial tensions and municipal anxieties that virtually every urban center has. Yet Savannah distinguishes itself in one important way. Because the appearance of racial indifference is vital to its economic interests, the city’s elite vigorously police the public sphere. When race does crop up, as it did during a racial discrimination lawsuit against former Food Network star Paula Deen, perhaps Savannah’s most famous resident, the result is something like shock. But it wasn’t her use of racial epithets that was shocking. Most shocking was someone complaining about it in public.
After details of the lawsuit came to light and after the Food Network severed ties with Deen, local TV news anchor Sonny Dixon, probably Savannah’s most powerful media figure, chipped away at the allegations in a July broadcast. He uncritically presented statements released by Deen’s attorneys. He claimed Deen’s racial epithets were taken out of context without showing evidence of his claim. He characterized Deen as “fighting back” against the coordinated slander of the national media. And he showed video of long lines of customers waiting to eat at her downtown restaurant as evidence that no one cares about Deen’s alleged racism except the plaintiffs.
Most powerfully, in the context of Southern racial history, Dixon found a prominent figure in the black community to say without doubt that Deen “can’t be a racist.” When Sonny Dixon asked about her use of the “N-word,” the Rev. Gregory A. Tyson of Savannah’s First Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church, said: “Well, who hasn’t? She was honest. That’s what you want in a person. She stood up and confessed and made the point that she did use the word. Who hasn’t? That doesn’t make her a racist.” Tyson takes the implication one step further. Deen is a major donor to a charity that helps local African-American boys from underprivileged backgrounds. So anything that impacts Deen’s economic interests, such as allegations of workplace discrimination, is going to impact those poor “black boys.” Deen isn’t a racist, but someone around here is, Tyson hints. Never mind that the plaintiffs in the legal complaint are black. The point is that racism is a private matter that only racists would bring out in the open.
Tyson comes from a rich tradition of black apologists for what historian Michael Lind has called the American South’s “local notables.” His task, whether conscious of it or not, is to make the interests of Savannah’s white elite appear to be the interests of everybody else, black or white, even if those interests violate one’s right to work in a job setting free of fear and intimidation. His goal is to make the plaintiffs in the suit against Deen seem like misfits, outliers, one of them, not us — as if the prejudice they experienced wasn’t a civil injustice as much as it was a character flaw. The plaintiffs, as Clarence Thomas might put it, are just too sensitive about race.
One could argue Thomas is also a part of the tradition of black apologists, but I won’t. I suggest instead that his remarks about race — how we are now more “race and difference-conscious” than in the segregated good old days — can’t be properly understood without first understanding the context from which they came. His claim to “sensitivity,” as I hope is clear, is really a rhetorical device. Savannah has been conscious of race and difference since the beginning, and like many American cities of any size, it continues to be conscious of race and difference. The minimal presence of race in Savannah’s public sphere, moreover, does not mean it doesn’t exist or that racism doesn’t affect people in unjust ways. It just means there are stakes involved.
So who uses the rhetorical device depends on the stakes. At stake for him in 1991 was being the second African-American justice of the US Supreme Court and the first black arch conservative. When that was threatened by allegations of sexual misconduct, no longer did Thomas downplay the South’s history of white supremacy, as he did when recalling his days integrating in an all-white school in Savannah. Instead, Thomas took a turn at being “sensitive” himself when he famously compared the Democrat-control nomination committee to a white lynch mob: “It is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the US Senate rather than hung from a tree.”
That essentially ended the Senate committee’s inquiry. But the experience clearly left a scar as “The worst I have been treated was by northern liberal elites,” he said at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Yet Thomas should be grateful to those “northern liberal elites.” Only they would have taken such accusations seriously. If the committee had been controlled by “the old order,” his comparison to a white lynch mob would have been met with the same denial, equivocation and misinformation that met those suing Paula Deen. These are just questions that have nothing to do with your race, representatives of the old order would say. We are colorblind; why aren’t you? You are clearly too sensitive about race to be a Supreme Court Justice. For all his avowed insensitivity to race, Thomas might well be back in Savannah.