By NICK CHILES
There were congratulations and smiles across the national media over the weekend as Wilcox County, Georgia, finally had its first-ever integrated prom.
For those of you who haven’t been following this story and thought perhaps the previous sentence contained a typo, let me quickly give you the particulars: For decades, the school board in this poor, sparsely populated county 150 miles south of Atlanta has avoided involvement in the prom festivities to allow parents to organize two separate dances, a prom for white students and one for black students.
But this year the students—two black girls and two white girls—got together and organized an integrated prom, which was held over the weekend, attended by at least 50 percent of the school’s student body.
“Hopefully when everything is said and done, people in our county will really realize, that there is no sense in the way things are right now,” one of the organizers, senior Mareshia Rucker, told ABC News affiliate WGXA.
The existence in 2013 of this remnant of the South’s ugly racist past brought a storm of media coverage, allowing commentators across the nation to shake their heads at the ridiculousness of these Southern hicks, still clinging to the 1950s. But in a nation where most of our neighborhoods are still rigidly segregated, where our churches are almost completely segregated, where most of our schools are thoroughly segregated, and where the social life of the nation itself still stands as a shining tribute to segregation—most of us socialize, party with, marry and screw our own kind—I was somewhat bemused by the smugness of these outside commentators, black and white, as they shook their heads at the ass-backwardness of Wilcox County, Ga.
Mind you, I am in no way advocating for the continued existence of separate, parent-sponsored school “parties,” in Wilcox County or anywhere else. I applaud the students in Wilcox, a county of just under 10,000 people, for doing something the (white) grownups were uninterested in doing.
For the record, the white parents still organized their own prom this year, attended by just white students. So Wilcox hasn’t stumbled out of the 1950’s just yet.
But then again, maybe those white parents in Wilcox were just being more truthful and transparent with theirs. While white and black parents in many parts of the country still find themselves on the verge of a nervous breakdown with the thought of their young daughters and sons engaged in intimate relationships with someone of the other race, these Wilcox parents are just making it a bit more guaranteed that little Becky won’t wind up with wrong-hued company on prom night.
Though with each generation the number of interracial couplings in high school and beyond definitely seems to rise, anyone who has been inside of a large, racially mixed high school knows there is a decided racial segregation to almost all of the school’s activities, from the gatherings in the lunch room to the makeup of many extracurricular activities. Go to one event and you’d think the school was all-black—the next night go to a different event and there are no black students to be found. For the most part, the students are just preparing themselves for life after school, when we tend to flock to our own like herds of sheep, with remarkable little cross-racial socializing outside of work-related events.
That is still the nature of American life, and I don’t see it changing anytime soon. I don’t even see any real impetus or desire to change it emanating from any sector of the American social landscape. We have accepted it as human nature—people feel most comfortable with their own, and when left to their own devices most people want to feel comfortable.
So before we go too far in castigating the white folks in Wilcox for being relics from a bygone era, let us not cast the stone too hard, as most of us stand in the living rooms and kitchens of our own very fragile glass houses.
No, I wouldn’t want my children to be told that because they’re black they couldn’t attend a private “prom” being thrown by white parents at their school. But then again, if we take away the word “prom” and put the purple tuxes and the sky blue ball gowns with the plunging cleavage back on the rack, there’d be no doubt that most of the private parties during any other weekend of the school year will be as segregated as Sunday morning church services.
So perhaps we should take a little of that outrage we’re directing at Wilcox County and turn it back on ourselves. Because until we decide we are truly committed to an integrated America, each generation of our children eventually grows up and casts aside the youthful idealism that motivated those girls in Wilcox. One day they will look around and do as the adults have taught them—retreat to the safety of their own.
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Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, including the upcoming "The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path To American Leadership," which he co-authored with Al Sharpton.