Friday, February 28, 2014

Racism in Religioussippi

According to Ecclesiastes 3:1, there is “a time for everything.” Among other things, that may mean there is a time for reading good literature and a time for reading popular novels.
This year so far has turned out to be the latter for me, as I have read three John Grisham novels since the beginning of the year.
I first decided to read “The Racketeer” (2012) because of the review of it my daughter-in-law posted on her blogsite, “Brenda’s Bookshelf.” Then my daughter Karen gave me a copy of Grisham’s new novel, “Sycamore Row,” for Christmas.
In mid-January, after finishing “The Racketeer,” which I found quite engaging, I started reading my Christmas present. I soon discovered it was the sequel to Grisham’s first novel.
So I put “Sycamore Row” on the back burner and read “A Time to Kill” (1989), which doubtlessly reflects the words of Ecclesiastes 3:3. It was a long (765 pages in the large print edition), spellbinding novel.
Grisham’s books may not be great literature, but they are alluringly-told narratives.
Then June and I watched the movie with the same name as the 1989 novel. I enjoyed it greatly—as did June, who had not read the book—and thought the end of the movie was better than the book’s ending.
A couple of weeks ago I finished reading “Sycamore Row,” which took place three years later in the same Mississippi town as “A Time to Kill” with Jake Brigance, the same youngish lawyer, as the central character.
A common theme of the two books is the racial tension between whites and blacks in the fictional north Miss. town of Clanton. And even though the first book was set in 1985, the demonic activities of the KKK played a prominent role in it.
In discussing the race issue in the new novel, Lucien, an aging, disbarred lawyer, says to Jake, “Everything is about race in Mississippi, Jake, don’t ever forget that.”
(Many of you will remember that the popular novel/movie “The Help” was also set in Mississippi.) 

Early this month, “Religioussippi” was the title of an online article by Religious News Service. That article started,
 Once again, Mississippi ranks as the nation’s most religious state . . . according to Gallup’s annual religiosity rankings. More than 60 percent of Mississippians call themselves “very religious.”
So if Mississippi is as racist as Grisham portrays in his novels—which, unfortunately, it probably is, although not as bad now as 30 years ago—how can that be reconciled with Mississippi being the most religious state?
Well, on the one hand it means that there are many African-Americans in Mississippi—a higher percentage (37.3%) than any other state—and a large percentage of them are strongly religious.
But it probably also means that for many white Mississippians, their religion has not been broad (or deep) enough to embrace black people as equals in every sense.
There are exceptions, of course. I have known Mississippians like Jake, the central character in the two books mentioned above, who treat African-Americans in the community with respect and dignity.
Many others, though, including some church people, not only look down on blacks but on people like Jake as well for being too friendly with “them.”
I am sad that the most religious state in the nation is also one of the most racist states.
That shouldn’t be so. But, unhappily, that seems to be the case.


  1. Religion has almost always been tribally based. So it has always been interwoven with ethnocentrism and racism and then in more recent history also with nationalism. The sociological studies of racial attitudes in the U.S. in the 1960s and 70s consistently found greater racism among the religious than the non-religious. More recent studies have found this correlation to have weakened. But thoughtful people of all faiths have to come to grips with the reality that, as historians and sociologists of religion have pointed out, religion has functioned more as a legitimator of divisions and domination than as a prophetic voice calling for a more enlightened, gracious, and just world. In that charge, the new atheists and people like Bill Maher are quite right, and to that charge, we must plead guilty.

    1. Anton, thanks for your pertinent comments. I am grateful that you as a sociologist, among other things, read and respond to my various blog postings. Your learned comments enhance the value of this blog.

      It is partly because of the conservative and even tribalistic nature of religion in general that I often make a distinction between religion and faith, often critical of the former and affirmative of the latter. People can, and often do, express themselves in a racist fashion from the standpoint of religion, for example, but that cannot be done from the standpoint of a vital faith.

  2. Grisham knows a thing or two about life in Mississippi. He lives in Oxford (or did). His property runs along Highway 6 into Oxford. I'm usually there once a year visiting friends. Recent and numerous reports from Ole Miss (in Oxford) about racist acts on campus help us know that racism is alive and well in that part of the country.

    1. David, thanks for your helpful comments. I knew that Grisham had a lot of ties to Mississippi, but I didn't realize he actually has a property near Oxford.

      According to Wikipedia, Grisham and his wife split their time between their Victorian home on a farm outside Oxford, Mississippi, and a home near Charlottesville, Virginia. But the article also says that in 2008, they bought bought a condominium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, so I don't know how they currently split their time.

      Grisham graduated from Mississippi State University in 1977 and then received his law degree from the University of Mississippi in 1983. The two novels about Miss. that I mention above makes reference to trips to Oxford from time to time. And it is interesting that the time setting for "A Time to Kill" is 1985, just two years after he finished law school.

  3. Religion is many things mixed together, and this has caused confusion and frustration from the beginning of history. Consider Isaiah 52:5 "All day long my name is constantly blasphemed." This is echoed in Romans 2:24, where the blasphemy is seen among the gentiles due to the reprehensible behavior of the believers. Indeed, we can go clear back to Cain and Abel, where their falling out is blamed on Cain's frustration with Abel's religious attitude (Genesis 4). We live inside a religious environment, so it is quite difficult to sort out just what the components of that environment are.

    Tribal and racial factors have indeed played a large role in the history of religion. However, efforts to sort out "true" religion from those factors also have a long history. We have learned that linguistic and economic norms are equally powerful. Psychology and sociology have taught us much. Many have responded by simply abandoning religion.

    Most people do not abandon food because of obesity, or sexuality because of rape. We do try to move beyond dysfunctional modes. Like Elijah, sometimes we need to return to the mountaintop of religious rebirth, to remember and restore what is great within religion, even as we try to heal what we experience as failing around and within us.

    When Moses met the burning bush, it was the beginning of the end of 400 years of slavery in Egypt. It is a moving story, yet it begs a question. Why did God wait 400 years? Mississippi has been a dense knot of pain for a very long time. Suffering calls out, How long, O Lord, how long? Well, it was about 250 years from when William Shakespeare wrote "The Merchant of Venice" about the same time the first black slave appeared on American soil, complete with Shylock forcing the Prince of Venice to espouse a complicated defense of slavery, until John Brown surrendered to Robert E. Lee, signaling the advent of the trampling out the vineyard where the grapes of wrath are stored. We spin nice theories about how God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent--when in fact we know not what we do. For the foolishness of God destroys the wisdom of man. God has found Mississippi before, God will find Mississippi again.

  4. Local Thinking Friend Tom Lankford send the following splendid comments (and gave me permission to post those comments here):

    "My daughter returned this last year to Kansas City after living in Hattiesburg for five years. She was just telling me the other day that it takes a serious and persistent effort to breach the racism gap that understandably exists on the black side in Mississippi.

    "She was telling me how she would constantly talk to the same black clerk at her favorite grocery store, and for the first ten times or so she was met with a cold and almost hostile reception. The Lankford blood within her saw this as a fun challenge to break down so she persisted in her conversations with a smile on her face and finally broke through to establish a trust.

    "Unfortunately most whites mistake a long festering suspicion as some flaw or reverse racism and give up the pursuit for connection and relationship and let their prejudice reign.

    "She was also saying that the continued high rate of second and third generation illegitimacy among blacks, creating the economic problems for young blacks, also raises the white prejudice as well. My daughter, I might remind you, had a baby out of wedlock in college but was able to navigate through the situation because of her social skills and high scholarship.

    "I was happy to see the President's gathering yesterday and that he extended an invite to Bill O'Reilly, who attended and in turn Valerie Jarrett appeared on his show last night. We need some hard hitting conversation on this issue because the school systems of the inner city seem to be failing on one of the few socialist programs I endorse. All people need to understand that we don't improve the situation by overlooking the issue or writing it off to cultural differences.

    "The best movie I've seen on the subject is about Ben Carson and how his illiterate mother took the educational control of her two boys at home and with hard work they of course ended up very well off intellectually, offering them the greatest potential and possibility; the milk and honey of the promised land."

    1. Tom, thanks for sharing your helpful comments. -- And you may be interested to know that because of them June and I now have "Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story" (2009) at the top of our Netflix queue.

  5. Dennis BoatrightMarch 1, 2014 at 9:26 AM

    Coincidentally I am listening to A Time to Kill and I have the movie recorded to watch when I finish the book. I listen to books on audio while I drive to/from work. That is great when you are stuck in traffic as it makes the time fly. The bad side happened this week listening to A Time to Kill when I realized I was almost to work and did not remember most of the drive.

    The audio book included a prologue from Grisham explaining Jake is very similar to John, almost autobiographical, including that they both drove Subarus Both wives may have been from North Carolina, which could explain Grisham's move to Chapel Hill.

    I too have been struck by the racism in this novel set in the '80s. However, I think I have shared my story from a college trip to Texas, so I do not doubt it. I was a recovering racist in the '80s and probably still am, so I have no room to preach.

    1. Dennis, good to hear from you again, and thanks for sharing your pertinent comments.

      Please be careful as you drive, for "A Time to Kill" is quite an engrossing book. That is interesting that you are currently listening to it. And I think you will enjoy the movie, too.

      I don't know if "Sycamore Row" is available on recorded books yet or not, but I hope you will have the opportunity to hear (or read) it not too long after finishing "A Time to Kill," for it is located in the same town and has several of the same characters in it--and makes several references to the Hailey trial.

    2. Dennis BoatrightMarch 2, 2014 at 9:30 AM

      Thank you Leroy. I have "Sycamore Row" in my wish list. I listened to "A Time to Kill" this morning, and the first sentence referenced his Saab. So I have to correct my previous posting, since it was Saabs and not Subarus. The difference made me wonder if there is not a racial undertone there as well. I have not heard any mention of Asian cars, but in addition to the Saab there is a BMW.

    3. Thanks for writing again, Dennis. I noticed the mistake about the Saab but thought it was not significant enough to correct. And I didn't think about there being any racial prejudice against Asians because there were no Asian cars mentioned.

      But Friday night June and I watched "Nebraska," and there was a scene where the local Nebraska (young) men made fun of "Jap cars." So there certainly has been racism expressed in that way, too.

  6. Thinking Friend Dave Johnson, who for many years was my colleague at Seinan Gakuin University in Japan and is now (since 2008) a professor of biological and environmental sciences at Samford University in Alabama, also sent, with posting permission, significant comments:

    "I do not know Mississippi that well, but do know Alabama. Let me give my impression of moving to Alabama from one of the 'enlightened' regions of our country in the middle of the civil rights movement.

    "I arrived in Birmingham in the fall of 1967 as a freshman at Samford University after being raised in a suburb of Seattle, Washington. I already had formulated a concept of what I would find as far as southerners' attitudes toward blacks was concerned. I expected to find loud-mouthed, bigoted, and maybe even ignorant white guys ranting about states rights, property values, while waving the Confederate flag. Well, I was not completely disappointed.

    "But, surprisingly, what I also encountered were just as many adamant but kindhearted white men and women speaking out against the bigotry around them and, even more importantly, rolling up their sleeves and doing something about it. My roommate challenged me to go along with a group of college students who went weekly to a local, predominantly black junior high school to shoot some hoops and help students in a free after-school tutoring program.

    "Through that experience, we became good friends with a brilliant young black junior high student who would spend the weekend with us in the dorm. On one such visit, we went to our favorite greasy spoon restaurant where we were told, 'We can serve you, but not him.' We walked out and the subsequent boycott by Samford students of that place soon made them change their policy. This was not an isolated event.

    "The exciting thing about all of this is that these were the strong Christian student leaders on campus leading this movement.

    "In Washington State, racism was kept quiet. We all admired the local high school guy who went on to be an all-pro defensive back with the LA Rams, but comments I heard about almost every other black, although hushed, were extremely degrading. Looking back, I am not all that sure that Alabama of 1967 was that far behind Washington State of 1967, at least as far as person prejudices goes.

    "My point is that racial prejudice is not a region matter. Alabama and Washington have both made progress but both still have a long way to go."

    1. Dave, thanks so much for writing and for sharing so fully.

      Yes, there is racism in all parts of the country, but it is expressed in different ways. Perhaps it is more blatant in the South and more insidious in other parts of the country.

      As I mentioned, there are religious (Christian) Mississippians who were/are actively fighting racism. I am glad you were among them in Alabama when you were a student there--and I hope now as well. Generally, though, there is less racism on college campuses, and college towns, than elsewhere, especially in small towns (like Clanton in Grisham's novels).

      Still, it was not until 1970 that the first African-Americans played in a varsity football game for the University of Mississippi State, and that was a year before that happened at Alabama University and two years before the Ole Miss team was integrated.

      Certainly, there have been a lot of changes for the better in the last 50 years, and in the years since Grisham's first novel was published.

  7. Somehow a discussion needs to be held at some level by various parties to sort out various –isms.
    I have been accused of racism more than once (in fact multiple times) over my life. My take is that most hurling the “insult” had no clue about me or my background, or my attempts to make a difference.
    I suppose if someone feels something, and sees some variance upon which to possibly make attribution, one verbal ejaculation is as good as the next.
    I saw the term used again today. The usage was obviously heart felt, but I am not sure it was correct, let alone a wise statement to make.
    I am not even sure what the term actually means any more since it is so often used incorrectly, or as an easy slur. In fact, does it have to do with skin pigment, or cultural difference, or just an easy catch-all to illustrate that some difference exists?
    Regarding other –isms, most people seem to take pride in their particular favorite. Has this just become another term twisted into something derogatory?
    In our ever polarizing world maybe we need to step back and re-think the story of life.
    We all have issues on which we need to contemplate and address, but it is not easy to do so under duress.

  8. It my mind, "racism" just means what the Merriam-Webster online dictionary gives as the primary meaning: "poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race."