MAXWELL:  San Angelo turns blind eye to racism

11/24/2002 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Like many other small Texas towns, San Angelo might well be a Jasper waiting to happen. Jasper is the East Texas town where white men murdered Charles Byrd by dragging him behind a pickup. Racial hell broke loose in Jasper following the killing.

Prior to Byrd’s death, Jasper prided itself in being a friendly place free of race problems. In fact, the term “racial harmony” was often used to describe this fishing capital.

Everyone now knows that Jasper had been in deep denial about relations between whites and African-Americans. Why? Because whites stayed on their side of the tracks, and blacks stayed on theirs. Whites politely spoke to blacks on the streets, and black smiled and returned the greetings. A handful of black boys and white girls could be spotted together after dark.

Matters are about the same here in San Angelo, where I have lived since August. On the surface, this West Texas university town is a friendly place, where an exchange of “hello” between a black and a white stranger is as natural as 100-degree weather, where the topic of race is rarely broached in public places, where the African-American population is less than 5 percent.

Because of the city’s well-known politeness, San Angeloans delude themselves about race. Politeness is an asset for obvious reasons. But it also can be a curse when race is involved, when it lulls people, both white and black, into denial. And San Angeloans have been lulled into deep denial about race.

In a recent column, Perry Flippin, a white man and editor of the local newspaper, the Standard-Times, wrote: “Could West Texans be too nice? Have we taken politeness to the point that we can’t express contrary views? Does political (or religious) correctness muzzle everyone from saying what he or she truly believes?”

Flippin was responding to an avalanche of letters to the newspaper following the Rev. Cevil Williams’ homecoming visit to San Angelo. Several times, Williams _ an African-American, pastor of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco and a San Angelo native _ reminded his mostly white audiences that racism is alive and well in the Concho Valley, home of the legendary black Buffalo Soldiers.

I have witnessed and experienced a lot of verbal attacks, but I was ill-prepared for the venom whites are spitting at Williams for his forthright observations. White people here vehemently deny that racism and other forms of social inequality exist in San Angelo.

Suddenly, the veneer of politeness has been peeled back, exposing a disquieting contempt for Williams and a fear of matters of race. Williams came to town and forced white people to look at that big old elephant (race) sitting on their living room floor.

Flippin: “Cecil Williams’ homecoming was like a pebble tossed on a glassy pond. His message about social injustice and personal responsibility will ripple through this city for as long as inequality persists.”

I spend a lot of time exploring San Angelo and talking with black people. I even sit in a local black barbershop and listen. Most of the blacks I meet describe racial problems they encounter.

But they remain silent. They remain silent for the sake of keeping the general peace, for the sake of safeguarding their families, for the sake of protecting their livelihoods. Even the head of the local NAACP chapter ducks the issue of race.

One black man, a cook, said: “Black folks around here don’t want any trouble from whites. Everybody knows race stuff goes on, but nobody is going to speak out. I don’t even want you to use my name.”

Think of that: Black people do not discuss racism and related abuses because they do not want to anger white people, because they do not want to be viewed as being troublemakers, because they want to keep their families safe.

San Angelo, like most other cities nationwide, will never fix its race problems because too many white people simply do not recognize white privilege and refuse to confess, yes confess, that they, individually and collectively, have a race problem in the first place.

For them, racism is a thing of a bygone era. The absolution goes like this: “I didn’t own slaves. Don’t blame me.”

Instead of seeing racism for the enduring evil that it is, racism’s perpetrators (white people) blame the victims (African-Americans) for race problems. Instead of addressing San Angelo’s inequitable, racially skewed housing lending practices, for example, many white people condemn Williams and other outspoken blacks, myself included, as being racists for highlighting problems and calling for action.

Again, editor Perry Flippin: “I believe San Angelo is free of overt racism. But San Angelo is not yet free of covert racism, which can be equally insidious. Behind all the smiles and civility dwell old suspicions, animosities and prejudices that can flare with little provocation.”

Yes, San Angelo _ because of its politeness and generations of denial _ might well be a Jasper waiting to happen.