I am a Mississippian at Yale. As you might imagine, we are few and far between in the Yale population. I had no idea that such regionalism — that as Americans we are either Southerners or East and West Coasters — existed in the United States until I crossed the Mason-Dixon line to enter the hallowed halls of the Ivy League.
People often ask me about race relations in Mississippi. I struggle to explain that while there are so many wonderful things about my home state, history has left Mississippi unresolved problems. The South is a place I believe one has to experience to understand. And since coming to Yale, I have started to see Mississippi’s racial problems and our nation’s internal divisions in an even sharper context.
Last week, I read about an incident involving Auburn fraternity members dressing up in racially insensitive costumes at campus Halloween parties. A photo service hired for the party posted pictures of members of Delta Sigma Phi and Beta Theta Pi dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes and holding a noose around a black-faced partygoer. The event disturbed me, but it was Alabama, not Mississippi, so it did not carry as much weight as it probably should have.
But then a similar incident surfaced at the University of Mississippi. Pictures from an Alpha Tau Omega Halloween party showed a policeman holding a gun to the head of a partygoer who was painted in blackface and bending down picking cotton.
The problems demonstrated by the pictures aren’t necessarily limited to the Deep South and have even penetrated the Ivy League. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported a Dartmouth “ghetto party,” where students dressed up and mocked blacks. It surprises me that Dartmouth students — gathered from one of the nation’s most competitive, and privileged, admissions pools — did not see why their actions were offensive.
But I do understand how people in the South overlook the seriousness of the Halloween pictures. The Ole Miss incident really resonated of my 18 years prior to Yale.
In fact, the person dressed as a policeman in the photographs was actually a classmate of mine from kindergarten through high school.
He is a product of the very same environment of my own youth.
As soon as I saw the picture and read the accompanying article in the Ole Miss student newspaper, I was immediately repulsed and angered. With a stupid, drunken act, those students managed to set back the South and its national reputation, and reinforced old stereotypes.
To an outsider of the South, the act might seem blatantly racist. More importantly though, the incident shows how necessary examination of the Ole Miss and Auburn partygoers’ culture is needed and sheds light on the internal division of our nation at a time when we need to be more closely joined than ever.
I am not familiar with Auburn’s fraternity and sorority scene, but I can attest that Greek life at Ole Miss is an extension of Mississippi’s educational system — an educational system that ranks last among America’s 50 states.
Ole Miss and the entire state’s school systems may have been integrated in 1962 and 1965, but the transition was never allowed to officially take place below college level. This transition was prevented by the creation of numerous private schools called segregation academies, which exist all over the state in the form of the Mississippi Private School Association.
In this way, coupled with self-segregating religion, so many Mississippi communities were able to self-segregate. In my small town of 7,900, it is a sad fact that, in a town with a racial breakdown of about 67 percent white and 32 percent black, I never had a black schoolmate.
These percentages are close to the state’s racial breakdown of 61 percent white and 32 percent black.
The self-imposed segregation continues throughout college with the help of the thriving fraternity and sorority scene. Fraternity and sorority life at Ole Miss is essentially a continuation of the internal divisions that characterized Mississippi schools — I estimate that roughly 70 percent of fraternity and sorority members are academy graduates.
And after graduation, does racial intermixing spontaneously surface?
I think you can answer that one for yourself. In this way, Mississippi has been able to legally remain separate but equal.
But even if segregation academies did not exist, would racial harmony be a possibility?
My answer is no. And the reason is simple.
Unfortunately, as is so often true in today’s society, racial trends seem to parallel socioeconomic trends. The socioeconomic disparity among Mississippi residents is what creates and maintains the racial tension. If all children of a community were put in one school, the students would self-segregate into groups of the haves and the have-nots.
The degenerate Southern fraternity partygoers are merely a reflection of the culture that created them: a culture that most would easily write off as racist and ignorant without examining the root of the problem.
While the Auburn and Ole Miss students in the photographs may be ignorant, their ignorance highlights how America handles its haves and have-nots. Mississippi can be seen as a microcosm openly showing what other states may be better at hiding.
The fraternity costume parties show that, in the wake of Sept. 11 and a heightened national consciousness of global racial tensions, the need for national self-examination of regionalism and racial tensions is more pressing than ever.
Elise Jordan is a sophomore in Berkeley College. She covers the Woodbridge Hall beat for the Yale Daily News.