Geographic Scapegoating: It’s Not The Place That’s The Problem

Courtesy of Miakosamuio on Flickr

Courtesy of Miakosamuio on Flickr

When I told one friend of mine that my family and I would be moving from Chicago to the Indianapolis area, she asked worriedly, “Will you be safe there?” She, a liberal, white woman, was certain that a black family moving to the heart of a red state would be greeted by open hostility or worse. Her comment betrayed a flaw in the way society often thinks about issues of inequality, relying on geographic scapegoats to avoid addressing widespread, systemic “isms”.

In the United States, the so-called “flyover states” serve as regional boogeymen for a host of social justice issues. The South and the Midwest are the places that denizens of the coasts can smugly identify as the source of all the country’s racism, homophobia, sexism and transphobia. And while it is true that some places have unique histories of injustice and hostility toward marginalized peoples. It is also true that America as a whole has a unique history of injustice and hostility toward marginalized people–no city or burgh within our borders is immune.

In the case of my worried friend, her cartoonish idea of conservative Midwesterners, chasing black families with sticks and torches to the soundtrack of a cackling Rush Limbaugh, allowed her personal racism to go unchecked. More broadly, a national focus on the imagined rampant and open bigotry of geographic scapegoats allows real inequality, especially the less overt kind, to fester both in the flyover states and everywhere else.

The Daily Show recently sent a pair of men to walk down the street holding hands in Alabama and Mississippi, and viewers were shocked–shocked–that they were able to do so unmolested. That shock is based on faulty thinking that brands everyone in the South violent bigots, but also forgets, while snarking on Cletus ‘n’ ‘em, that gay men get attacked in New York City, too, not just in the backwaters. This geographic scapegoating also sets a remarkably low bar for equality.The ability to walk down the street hand-in-hand with a partner–no matter their gender–is the very least this country should promise its citizens. No city deserves a cookie for offering basic civil rights.

What would the audience have learned if those The Daily Show’s plants had faced opposition on the streets of Southern towns? Likely very little. It would have been another opportunity for Northern progressives to pat themselves on the back for not being as prejudiced as their neighbors to the South. A fact that would be small comfort to Glenda Moore, the black Queens woman who lost her children after being denied help from neighbors during Hurricane Sandy, likely because of her race.

This “location blaming” can be local, national, or international. The United States, due to its ignoble slave past and Jim Crow, is the place folks in Canada and the United Kingdom point to when they are pretending to be post-racial. And the dusty Lone Star State allows Austin to stand as an oasis of perfect progressivism. But in her must-read piece on being black in Austin, TX, Joshunda Sanders points out the problem with this: Being “not as bad as X” allows places like Austin to avoid self-reflection, which ultimately makes life harder for the marginalized groups who live there.

This is part of what makes Austin and Texas exhausting locations for black people, especially black women. As in its liberal cousin hubs, like Berkeley and San Francisco, I feel a hypervisible invisibility in Austin. Like people are happy to see me because it means that they are not racist, because, look, there is a real, live black woman here, too, and it’s so great that she didn’t have to come in the back or that she’s enjoying a fine meal, too. More often than not, my presence provokes a stare from non-black people pregnant with class and gender assumptions and limitations. Put another way, even though I’m a homeowner, people frequently assume that I must be visiting from where all the black people live. Polite racism is still racism, and because black people with brown skin in particular are unable to pass as anything but, I would argue that people hear most often from us about bias in Austin and Texas because there is no way to blend in or avoid the subject.

This is no different from America. But at least in more racist pockets of Texas, I know where I stand. I mean, I know to stay the hell out of Vidor. But knowing your role in Austin is much trickier. There is no resting place. A tense smile in a liberal hub is a maddening, dangerous thing. It is to be placed in a category upon first meeting that requires black women to spend their social time and experiences treading lightly while we assert and affirm our individuality, knowing that we are often educating our well-meaning friends and while they appreciate it, it is repetitive, never-ending, tiring work. If they are not awkward (and it is a naturally awkward topic, race) or defensive, responses about racial stratification here prompt a white flag: hopelessness, a kind of dreaded silence, an acknowledgment of the awkward position of black women here, a change of subject.

Not only does geographic scapegoating allow people to ignore problems of inequality, it also allows them to ignore the hard work of progressive people living in less-than-progressive places. In an article titled “Five Things Red State Liberals Want Blue State Liberals to Know,” Laurie Bertram Roberts writes:

Just because you see a Republican controlled state running amok doesn’t mean that liberals on the ground are not fighting back. We are! Mississippi is a great example for every horrible bill you see signed by our Governor there are 30-40 more that people fought to get rid of. Just because you don’t see it in the news doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Solutions to inequality of race, gender and sexuality require not just that we can identify overt biases in those bad people in those bad places “over there,” but that we can recognize our own prejudices–overt and covert–and work to mitigate them. Demonizing certain places, while giving other guilty places absolution moves, us further from our goals.

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3 thoughts on “Geographic Scapegoating: It’s Not The Place That’s The Problem

  1. Amy C. November 15, 2013 at 3:49 pm Reply

    Bravo!

    As someone from one of those places that often gets dismissed immediately as a RED STATE 4EVER, it’s a relief to be reminded that at least some people from elsewhere can see that there’s more complexity in our situation than might be readily apparent at first glance. There’s plenty of work to do, and I plan to do my part, but it’s always nice when people that I view as my allies view me as one, too.

    Thank you.

  2. Tamara Winfrey Harris November 15, 2013 at 4:01 pm Reply

    Red state liberals, unite!

  3. Laurie Bertram Roberts November 28, 2013 at 10:59 am Reply

    Great piece I use to live in Indiana and Indianapolis is a large US city that has the same issues of other large US cities. Thank you for calling out the bigotry that often goes unspoken!

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