Roger Barbee: Segregated still

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 25, 2023

The 1950s world in which I grew up was white. The 1964 graduating class in which I was in the lower quarter was white. The workers in the cotton mill in which I earned college tuition were white. Anyone or anything not white in our cotton mill town was located across the kudzu filled ravine near the white and Black high schools or secluded in lone hamlets of a few houses and perhaps a store and a church. In those areas Blacks lived and they only ventured into the white world if summoned to do menial work for the white folks. Isolated from the other, neither world was part of the other; whatever contact that took place between the two was superficial. Separated according to historical prejudices, neither culture knew or cared to know the other. Any mingling was done for the economic benefit of whites, as when Blacks were hired for menial labor tasks such as hauling trash.

All of this came to mind when I read an opinion piece in a North Carolina newspaper. I copy the following paragraph of that perspective:

“North Carolina Rep. Jeff McNeely had a Freudian slip on the N.C. House floor this past week because what he said was perfectly emblematic of a GOP mindset that is dragging the Tar Heel state back to the 1950s. McNeely, a white Republican who has served in the House since 2019, directed a revealing question to Rep. Abe Jones, a Black Democrat, during a debate about private school vouchers. Before he was cut off McNeely said: ‘I understand that you went into public schools and you went to Harvard and Harvard Law. And the question I guess, is, would you have been able to maybe achieve this if you were not an athlete or a minority or any of these things, but you were a student trapped in a school that the slowest — you know, in the wild we’ll say the slowest gazelle does not survive, but yet the herd moves at that pace. So the brightest child sometimes is held back in order —’ ” Since that exchange on the House floor McNeely has apologized and said that his words did not come out right, but he is still being attacked as a racist.

As a citizen I have the luxury of reading McNeely’s words instead of hearing them spoken during a debate. I get to read them, think about them, then read them as many times as I need to in order to make sense of his jumbled statement. They are far from eloquent, and they demonstrate a lack of knowledge about the Black experience in America. They also show a basic nervousness when McNeely says “I guess” as he attempts to explain his question to Jones. I see McNeely’s “question” as one not expressing racism but ignorance. I don’t know if McNeely is a racist, but I see his jumble of words as his pathetic way of asking Jones, “How do we help ensure success for our more capable students like you were?” I suggest that he could not ask that of Jones because he, like whites in the 1950s world in which I grew up, has no meaningful relationships with people of color.

Maybe McNeely, as widely written, had looked at Jones and his black skin and his Harvard degrees, and thought affirmative action or an athlete. Perhaps he, however, was asking Jones how we use his experience to help our students. I don’t know McNeely’s heart, nor do others; but I do know that if he took the time to hear the stories of his other legislators he could, along with them, be better public servants. And I suggest that Jones spend time with McNeely and his cohorts in order to hear their stories because we all have our story that has shaped us.

Not too long ago I heard Rev. Al Sharpton remark that on 9-11 the aggressors were not attacking Jews or homosexuals or Blacks or conservatives but Americans. The jihadist who used our planes to kill were attacking our community.

The McNeely “question” of Jones demonstrates to me that we are still too much of a segregated culture that does not realize how to discuss race and other differences. In too many ways we are still isolated from each other. We need not always agree, but we must become a community built on mutual trust and understanding. After all, we are all Americans.

Roger Barbee lives in Mooresville. Contact him at