Racism In The North: Is It Different Than Racism In The South?

Feb 9, 2018

John Biewen, host of the program Scene on Radio.
Credit Courtesy John Biewen

At the University of Southern Maine Saturday, audio journalist John Biewen, the host of the program Scene on Radio, and scholar Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika will present one part of an audio series about "whiteness" and race, with a focus on racism in the North.

The talk comes just weeks after a Maine town manager was fired for posting racist comments online.

Biewen talked recently with Maine Public Radio's Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz, who asked him about an episode where Ojibwe tribe members in Wisconsin are harassed over traditional fishing rights.

GRATZ:  What does that scene say about northern racism?

BIEWEN: People in the fishing industry and sport fishermen were irate and it resulted in these demonstrations on the sides of lakes with white people in camouflage and blaze orange shouting racist epithets at the Native Americans...

AUDIO CLIP: “Them bums don’t need our fish and deer and our trees!”

BIEWEN: ...the kind of thing that I think those of us in the North just don't associate with ourselves. We think that this kind of overt racism is something that's confined to the South and it's just not the case.

GRATZ: Yeah, we've had some of those disputes here between our state government and native tribes, and sometimes they're said to be about, kind of, legal issues of sovereignty. But perhaps that's not all that's going on.

BIEWEN:  It's not that there might not be some actual issues worth discussing there. But what comes out is a kind of “othering” and a sense of hostility that seems to be beneath the surface.

GRATZ: What differences did you and Dr. [Chenjerai] Kumanyika find between racism in places like the South and in the North?

BIEWEN:  The differences are more stylistic than anything. There's a sense in the North, I think, of people being less comfortable with just being around people of color. Our ideas may be more, kind of, politically correct in our politics and so on than a Southerner would be. But the baseline realities, in terms of really racialized inequities in schools and housing segregation, and their criminal justice systems, there's really no meaningful difference.

GRATZ: Are there any ways in which these distinctions do matter?

BIEWEN:  The conversation that we really need to be having is that we need to be looking more at these structural issues. Let's look at our education system: How is it actually serving people? Let's look at what's happening in the criminal justice system and the economy, and so on, rather than focusing so much on these relatively superficial ideas about, you know, how are people getting along? Or what sorts of personal attitudes do white people have about people of color?

GRATZ: There's another clip from one of the programs in which your colleague, Liz Phillips, reflects on being at a party and telling someone that she's from the south.

AUDIO CLIP: “This person said, ‘Wow. What's that like?’ And, you know, I felt like I knew where this was going. But I said, ‘Well, what's what like?’ ‘You know, living in the South - all that race stuff.’ ”

GRATZ:  What does that clip say about the more subtle characteristics of racism in Northern states?

BIEWEN: You know, it reflects the fact that, again, that idea among lots of Northerners that racism is a pervasive problem in the South in a very different way than it is in the North - you know, the sense - their sense - of innocence and smugness, as though race is not a not an issue in the North. And ask people of color if that's the case, you know, people who live in the North.

GRATZ: You know, the town manager in Jackman in northwestern Maine was recently fired for posting anti-Muslim and white separatist comments online. Has social media become a way racism is expressed in the North?

BIEWEN: I think that with social media, and also things like, you know, the smartphone videos that get captured and put out into the world, we’re getting more, kind of, windows into overtly racist attitudes that may have just gone unnoticed.