With one possible exception, the white women are remarkably unlikable, and not just because of their racism. Like the housewives portrayed in reality television shows, the housewives of Jackson treat each other, their parents and their husbands with total callousness. In short, they are bad people, therefore they are racists.
There’s a problem, though, with that message. To suggest that bad people were racist implies that good people were not.
Jim Crow segregation survived long into the 20th century because it was kept alive by white Southerners with value systems and personalities we would applaud. It’s the fallacy of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a movie that never fails to move me but that advances a troubling falsehood: the notion that well-educated Christian whites were somehow victimized by white trash and forced to live within a social system that exploited and denigrated its black citizens, and that the privileged white upper class was somehow held hostage to these struggling individuals.
But that wasn’t the case. The White Citizens Councils, the thinking man’s Ku Klux Klan, were made up of white middle-class people, people whose company you would enjoy. An analogue can be seen in the way popular culture treats Germans up to and during World War II. Good people were never anti-Semites; only detestable people participated in Hitler’s cause.
Cultures function and persist by consensus. In Jackson and other bastions of the Jim Crow South, the pervasive notion, among poor whites and rich, that blacks were unworthy of full citizenship was as unquestioned as the sanctity of church on Sunday.
Most of us are not moral islands, independently thinking though every moral belief based on first principles; for the most part, we rely on our peer groups’ standards to let us know what is and isn’t moral. A passionate ACLU liberal living in Amherst, Massachusetts, might instead be a passionate pro-life tea partier if they had been raised in the more conservative areas of Texas. That same person, raised instead in 1920s Germany, might think it only reasonable and moral to be a Nazi.
Of course, in every community there are also some moral rebels — and in hindsight, in some cases, those moral rebels are heroes.
I’m not saying that all moral codes are equally good. I am saying that these questions are not a matter of good character vs bad character, and when media presents an issue like racism as bad people versus good people — ignoring how bad community values can shape even good people’s beliefs — that is unhelpful.