The war that's still with us

Tuesday - 4/26/2011, 10:56am EDT

This month marked the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. South Carolina, not surprisingly, had the bad taste to hold a mostly segregated big dance and celebration for the occasion. But as a Southerner, I find the date troubling as I look around the country, especially in the South.

I was a teenager on the cusp of the Civil Rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. I had the naïve belief that once Jim Crow laws were dismantled, the country would become a true meritocracy. Each person, white or black, would have a fair chance at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I figured it would take about 10 years.

The country has made great progress toward that noble goal since the War, the bloodiest in the nation's history. Over 625,000 died. Speeches and documents leading up to the War make clear that it was fought over slavery. "State's rights" as a cause came later, and the words today have come to be code in politics, at least in the South, for holding back civil rights.

Perhaps because we lost the war, Southerners have had more difficulty in adjusting to a racially integrated society. I know well how far we've come.

Our public schools educate black and white students together.

Our cafeterias and restaurants serve all races at the same lunch counters and dining rooms.

Blacks live in once-segregated neighborhoods and in some of the fanciest zip codes.

And the 2010 Census showed the number of interracial marriages up 20 percent since the 2000 Census.

But the attitudes toward race are far from the race-neutral meritocracy I once envisioned. I, as a white Southerner, still see ghosts, dragging the chains of segregation and the secret thoughts of racial inferiority.

Fifty years ago, I argued against public monies paying for private, segregated academies. Today's debate over charter schools sounds sadly familiar.

True, there will be no racially segregated charter schools but neither will they educate the racial and economic spectrum of students left in public schools.

I see race as a factor in the "birther" movement. Believing in such nonsense is a politically correct disguise for people who cannot accept that a black man is president.

Saddest of all is our culture, white and black, Southern and national, that allows many minority and poor members of the nation's family to remain intractably uneducated, unproductive, and impoverished.

My hope now is that my dream of meritocracy and an equal chance at the pursuit of happiness will be realized in the next 150 years. Life has cured me of believing any years less.