I imagine Ole Miss herself singing in my ear about her problems with racial equality when I hear the song “Ooh La La” by the Faces: “I wish that I knew what I know now … When I was younger.”
In middle school I wrote a report on James Meredith detailing his admission to The University of Mississippi. I was old enough to be writing about a problem that has existed since before I was born but unable to explain why such a problem existed. I understood that Meredith was given hell because of his skin color, but such a state of affairs was hard to imagine sitting in a sixth grade classroom in Mississippi in 2002 with half of the class being a darker skin tone than me and the other half being a lighter one.
“What have we learned since 1962?” – This is the question, but I must begin by accounting for what I believe we can know about other people. At the most superficial level we can give a physical description, but if we dig deeper we find culture, habits, observations, beliefs, memories, personal creativity, an overall attitude toward life and so on – this is the core makeup of personality.
From the most superficial level – outward appearances – it is difficult to determine much about an individual. Perhaps one could ascertain what part of the world the individual is from, or what physical traits he or she is genetically predisposed toward, but it’s impossible to know what someone is worth to the human race, or what kind of mind-set he or she holds while observing from the outside only.
But this is the vantage point persons of lighter skin tones had of persons of darker skin tones in Mississippi circa 1962 and long before that. Segregation was the order of the day. For such a divide to exist in a society, one group of people in that society must see another group as not quite human.
So when James Meredith enrolled in the fall of 1962 and the show that ensued took place, persons of a lighter skin tone revolted at the thought of losing their alleged “identity.” This is a good illustration of how all morality is a calculation of what will and will not be tolerated, and as such all morality comes from the ambition of the individual or group that enforces it. No morality comes from some metaphysical realm of justice – all morality comes from the will of those in power.
The rioters resisted giving up their ideology in favor of one that evaluates human beings on a standard that goes much deeper than skin color, a standard which is commonplace in 2012. Of course, even today, some still believe in sizing up a new individual based on their past experience with others who look similar, but this is due to their own intellectual laziness and not a rampant societal standard.
Now, don’t get me wrong, we are able to identify a particular mind-set in a group of people who, by their own actions, admit to sharing it (such as the love of dogs which is found in dog owners). But it is unsound to assume a particular mind-set in a stranger based on something as superficial as skin tone; all such assumptions are speculations posing as facts which lead to an illusion of knowledge.
So what was all the fuss about at Ole Miss in 1962? I argue that one train of thought, the superficial standard of evaluating the “other,” collided with a more evolved way of thinking — and though the latter carried the force of reason with it, old habits still die hard and require time and patience to overcome.
The existence of modern men (and modern women as well) follows from an evolved society. So much shame has been overcome in American history for us to exist as we do today, and racism is but one superficial line of thought we have had to overcome on our quest to the depths of knowledge. Having exposed it and other superficial standards, less and less now clouds our minds in the search for reality.
Let’s keep digging.
Andrew Dickson is a religious studies senior from Terry. Follow him on Twitter @addoxfordms.