I grew up in Mayberry. Not really, of course. But Yankton, South Dakota was about as close to Mayberry as you could get in the middle of last century. It may still be. None of that is to say that growing up there gave one an advantage. What life has shown me since is my sheltered boyhood in a lily white prairie town left me unprepared in many ways for making my way.
The current consensus pegs the white population of South Dakota at 89.6 percent. The state has no cities of any size. Certainly nothing truly urban. You can drive from one end of Sioux Falls to the other in less than 10 minutes. One girl of color, an African-American, graduated with my hometown class of 104 in 1957. To the best of my knowledge, she never returned for any reunions. One Native American boy attended high school the four years I was there. Everett Jones starred on our football team. Nobody knew where Everett lived. He was not one of the guys. I have to wonder what he thought when he saw his classmates profane the regal headdress of a tribal chief when they used one to crown their white homecoming king. One thing was certain as the king and queen rode down main street on the back of a convertible. They were reminding all onlookers of white man’s triumph. A mockery, no matter how innocently intended.
Dynamics of Denial . . .
The high school boys’ teams, after all, were called the Bucks, a pejorative moniker frequently used referring the Native American males and often as well the African American males. For the equivalent, imagine an all-white team in the deep South calling themselves “The Coons.” As a student participant, I honestly thought we were all convinced we were honoring Native Americans. Never mind our grandparents slaughtered or banished them to reservations. The dynamics of denial became almost instinctual within two generations. As kids, we didn’t know what we were doing, but the adults in the community did.
The homecoming was Arickara, the meaning of which few knew. Adjusting to the dictates of political correctness, in 1995, the school retained the name Bucks for athletic teams but replaced the profile of a Native American male on the uniforms and warm-ups with the head of a stag. Arickara, the name of a Sioux tribe, went by the boards in the same stroke. Homecoming is now “Pioneer Days.” Dress is frontier style buckskins, coon skin hats, long full dresses, etc. all reminiscent of the settling of the country by the white Europeans. The arrogant, presumptive use Native American dress, iconography, and symbols was finally gone. Few noticed, however, that now the Native American culture was not being acknowledged at all.
In 1957, some in the community were old enough to remember the massacre at Wounded Knee. It happened a three hour drive from town. It was never mentioned. While we had open discussions in civics class about early stirrings of the civil rights movement in the South, all knew it referred exclusively to African-Americans. The focus never shifted to Native Americans. Yankton, like Mayberry, was a non-inclusive white culture perpetuated by celebrating the Europeans who claimed the land as their own and banished a culture that stretched back in history at least as far as theirs.
White man’s shallow history began on the banks of the Missouri River at Yankton, the last steamboat stop on the inland artery of the continent, a destination port where settlers, emboldened by a sense of God given entitlement, disembarked and fanned out across the prairie in a human delta as first to stake a claim, own a plot of virginal grassland, and with beast in harness, walk behind a wooden-handled plow cleaving the primal sod, laying it back and bare like the entrails of slaughtered prey.
All time then began at that in history point for the refugees of old world poverty and oppression. Nothing of the ancient land revered by the natives merited their respect or remembrance. This is the open, honest face of the Midwest, smiling up from a field of lies in Rockwellian wholesomeness. This is how they see themselves today – hardworking, honest, well-intentioned, sturdy folk. And so it might seem. They are the people a dishonest, cruel culture produces, and dishonesty takes the form of deeply imbedded denial. Schooled so thoroughly in virulent prejudice against one race, we learned the social attitudes of belittlement and dismissiveness easily transfer to any race other than one’s own. What drives white racism is not simply hostility and distrust for other races but the unexamined DNA-deep conviction that caucasians are superior
A Bubble . . .
Most white mid-Americans are not aware of their prejudice. They are the heartland and they are proud of it. But they no more present a true, or even an ideal, picture of America than Mayberry does. They grow up and prevail in communities where their entire lives have been among nothing other than white neighbors. They expect to see people they know when they go downtown. “Everyone in the county knows our station wagon,” Mother would remind me as headed out the door, an admonition to behave myself. There are no “bad areas” in their towns, places where it is unsafe. No sprawling urban decay and obvious poverty. The prairie states are bubble in which the white man thrives and takes pride in a history that overlooks genocide and the perpetuation of apartheid with Native Americans.
Perhaps it is an unacknowledged awareness of their fragile, exclusive society that informs their predictable conservative political and social views. They want to protect the bubble even if it means putting a woefully unqualified man like Trump in the presidency. Each state sends two senators to Congress, the number it would have taken to impeach Trump. South Dakota with about 900,000 citizens has the same representation as California with 39.5 million, a stunning inequality made so much worse when prairie state senators have no experience living with minorities, air pollution,, heavy industry, high crime, large percentages of unemployed, slums, overwhelmed infrastructure, failing medical delivery, or crushing poverty. Under the current system, the least qualified get elected by small, virtually all white constituencies whose vote carries up to 40 times the weight of our most populous state.
Visitors from the 19th Century . . .
“Hell, no,” a Midwesterner would say. “I don’t want California or New York telling me how to run my business or raise my kids.” What is actually happening, of course, is the reverse. The mid-America states send elected officials to Congress who have no life experience to help them deal with the problems of modern America. They visit the twenty-first century as aliens from the 19th in air-conditioned autos with cell phones in hand. They represent cheap targets for the wealthy like the Koch brothers. A senator from South Dakota would not have the campaign expenses of a colleague from New York or California. They come with a more modest price tag but can deliver the same desired result. Two for the price of one with the almost certainty the second amendment is not an issue. It is time to recognize sparsely populated, mainly non-urban states take their seats as a minority and their representation should be cut back to a level that reflects that actual standing in the Republic.