A solution to heritage
By JONATHAN RICH
September 2, 2011
A few months ago, a friend of mine — a black man — purchased a Confederate flag T-shirt.
Confused, I asked him how he could fly the Stars and Bars, given his ethnicity.
“Hey, its heritage, not hate bro,” he responded.
I had to wonder — isn’t hate a part of our heritage? How else would one describe the South’s history of slavery, lynching and segregation?
The exchange with my friend taught me some valuable lessons about Southern pride.
We tend to glamorize the past, pining for a bygone era while overlooking the brutality that actually existed.
As a result, we Southerners suffer from a collective inability to learn from the mistakes of our past.
And as the cliché goes: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfill it.”
Racial discrimination is a case in point. For centuries the South was defined by its discriminatory policies on the basis of race.
It took a bloody Civil War and a Civil Rights movement to finally end institutional discrimination.
After centuries of unspeakable cruelty and injustice, you’d think we would have learned from our lesson.
But recent events indicate just how little things change here in the South.
The Board of Regents banned undocumented economic refugees from attending Georgia’s five most competitive public universities, including University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Georgia Health Sciences and Georgia College & State. And immigrants who wish to attend other schools are forced to pay out of state tuition.
This ban is a tacit admission that the Board of Regents’ primary concern is not education but punishing an already vulnerable minority group.
In the past, Southerners were segregated on the basis of their skin color. Today, the Board of Regents is segregating us based on our place of birth.
Most Southerners acknowledge that skin color is not a fair basis for differential treatment. Sociologists have pointed out that race is a social construct, not a biological fact – no distinct or “pure” race exists. And the idea that skin color is a signifier of intelligence has long been discarded into the dustbin of history.
However, we have yet to accept that borders are not a fair basis for differential treatment. Nation-states, like race, are social constructs that exist only because people collectively agree they exist.
Just as people do not choose their skin color, neither do they choose where they were born. But for some reason, the Board of Regents thinks it is justifiable to discriminate based on an accident of birth.
A large number of undocumented students were brought to America by the parents when they were only children. They have lived in Georgia for all of their conscious lives. They have no memories of their birth place. Georgia is just as much their home as it is anyone who was born here.
But the Board of Regents cares more about imaginary borders than it does about flesh and blood human beings.
Put this way, the Board of Regent’s policy sounds ludicrous. Not only that, it sounds cruel and heartless. Future generations will undoubtedly laugh at these modern day segregationists for the absurd rationalizations they dream up to justify arbitrary discrimination.
But when will the South ever learn from its past mistakes and end its legacy of hate?
Fortunately, not all is lost. A group of five University professors have taken action into their own hands.
The professors have created a new college called Freedom University. Freedom University, which opens on Sept. 8, will offer free weekly seminar courses designed to mirror the curriculum of competitive schools.
Though Freedom University is not yet accredited, it is nonetheless an exciting experiment in grass roots democracy.
It takes great compassion for these professors to volunteer their time and energy to help the disenfranchised. The professors who founded this university should be regarded as heroes of the modern day civil rights movement.
So while the South as a whole may be slow to change, there will always be dedicated Southerners who are willing to fight for freedom.
Perhaps this is key to our redemption. Yes, hate is part of our region’s heritage, but so is compassion. We have a history of courageous civil rights activists who put their lives on the line for freedom. This is the aspect of the South’s history we should take pride in.
The South doesn’t have to be a symbol of hate any longer. It is my hope that more people have the courage to carry the torch of our civil rights legacy into the future.
Copyright © 2011 The Red and Black Publishing Company Inc.