I Spent the Summer in the South. What They're Telling You About Racism There Is Wrong | Opinion

While attending a dinner party some years ago, my wife was raving about a recent trip we had taken. She was telling a friend—who is black, like my wife and me—that we flew to Memphis, Tennessee and then drove through Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. Her friend, a woman who often takes solo trips internationally, said, "I would love to do that, but I'm afraid." The South in her mind was not safe for blacks.

It's a perception many northerners share. Those of us who don't live in the South often talk about it as if the whole region is frozen in 1965 Selma. So the question of racism in the South was very much on my mind when my wife and I decided to spend the summer in Charleston, South Carolina. I had been to the South on several occasions, but this was going to be different from a visit or a weekend trip; I was hoping to see if there was truly a different America with respect to race in the South than where I was coming from, New York City.

What I found was nothing like the horror stories I had been told. In fact, it was a pleasant surprise.

The first thing I noticed was that there are a lot of black people in Charleston. In fact, most blacks still live in the South—55 percent of black Americans, which is 10 percent more than the rest of the country combined. And it's a number that has been growing ever since then.

And the growth is not just in numbers; it's in political clout, too. Half of black representatives in Congress represent southern states, and black Americans are experiencing a growth in local political power, too, with towns across the South electing black mayors.

This is not the result of segregation either, another facet of the South I had expected to find and was pleasantly surprised not to; the opposite, in fact: Data routinely finds northern American cities more segregated than the South. In 2019, only three of the top 10 most segregated American cities were in the South. And a recent study found California and the Northeast were more segregated than the South.

As for children, New York—that bastion of liberalism—is the most segregated state for black students, with the highest rate of black students who do not go to school with any white students. And Illinois is second. Meanwhile, by 1970, Southern schools were the country's most racially integrated. And while there has been some backsliding, southern schools remain less racially segregated than throughout the Northeast and Midwest.

The South
People hold hands as they join together on the Arthur Ravenel jr. bridge to commemorate the lives lost in the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 21, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Another bit of anecdotal evidence I noted that is backed up by data was the number of mixed-race couples I saw during my sojourn down South, part of a trend of exploding interracial families. Based on Census Bureau data from 42 states back in 2011, the New York Times reported that "the nation's mixed-race population is growing far more quickly than many demographers had estimated, particularly in the South." In North Carolina, the mixed-race population had doubled, while Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee saw their mixed-race population explode by as much as 80 percent. In Indiana, Iowa and South Dakota, it was 70 percent. And it was Mississippi—Mississippi!—that led the nation in the growth of mixed marriages.

Then there's the history. Obviously, the South was home to much of the worst of the ugliness of slavery and racism in America. And these days, we're often told that whites—especially non-elite whites— in the South are afraid to discuss this history and are trying to censor our ugly past in classrooms. But what I found in Charleston shattered that narrative.

Charleston has taken important steps to embrace rather than hide its past, using it to teach future generations the truth as well as to honor those who were savagely mistreated. There are street signs and statues honoring the likes of Robert Smalls and Denmark Vesey. There's the marker on Highway 17 commemorating the Stono Rebellion of 1739 (the largest slave insurrection in British North America), and there are countless museums, plantations, and cemeteries that honor the lives and legacies of enslaved Africans.

I visited several of these places during my stay and always felt that the employees made it their mission to give as accurate a perception of the treatment of the enslaved people as they could, to acknowledge the tremendous work they did— under unimaginable conditions, and to paint the slave holders in a negative light. These are not people afraid to teach the truth about slavery.

But in addition to all the surprises I witnessed in the South, perhaps what stood out the most was what I didn't see. I saw no profusion of "Black Lives Matter" or "Hate Has No Home Here" and was subjected to no constant reminders of the virtues of diversity. No one took pains to remind me that I'm black or felt compelled to tell me that my life matters or that they empathize with how difficult my life must be.

Instead, people took a rather novel approach to race relations: White and black Southerners treated me and everyone else with kindness and respect. And they did this with typical southern charm. Everywhere I went, people made it a point to speak to me—a move foreign to New Yorkers; people took pains to find a kind word or observation to share and went out of their way to make me feel at home.

It was shocking, after living for decades in Chicago and later New York City, where people go about their day never acknowledging the milling of people around them—while still managing to perpetuate the heavy weight of racial awareness.

And it was this most of all that I dreaded returning to after two months in Charleston: the never-ending focus on race that the north has assumed.

As a black American, I will miss being able to go about my day without seeing a plethora of signs droning on about "people of color" or issues that "disproportionately affect black and brown people." In Charleston, I felt seen and acknowledged without being told that I was; in New York City, I'm once again surrounded by white women in "Black Lives Matter" T-shirts who would never deign to speak to an actual black stranger.

Being treated like a fellow human being and a fellow American before being seen as a black man was a treat I didn't know I was missing until this trip. I wish I could export the niceties and respect I received in the South to New York and have people truly accept everyone as equals rather than treat them differently—and then put-up signs or wear T-shirts signaling how deeply they embrace equality.

Charles Love is the executive director of Seeking Educational Excellence, host of The Charles Love Show, and the author of the upcoming book Race Crazy: BLM, 1619, and the Progressive Racism Movement.

The views in this article are the writer's own.