The XX Factor

New York Times Fluff Piece on Manners Sugarcoats Racism

Tuesday’s New York Times included an article about the supposed decline of Southern manners. It is, for the most part, a typical bogus trend piece: full of anecdotes about children who no longer call adults “sir” and “ma’am”; sweeping, impossible-to-prove generalizations (“Civility is also waning at that most civil of events, the Southern wedding”); quotes from scholars, self-proclaimed media specialists, and a hodgepodge of men and women on the street; and cutesy paragraph-ending kickers (“you have a situation where saying ‘thank you, ma’am’ isn’t good enough anymore”).

But you wouldn’t know any of that from reading the story’s lede, an account of a conflict that arose at an Atlanta bar when two black men were asked to give up their seats to two white women. The men sued the establishment for $3 million, claiming that its policy of “Southern hospitality” was applied disproportionately against African-Americans and amounted to harassment, but lost the case.

That sounds like a pretty serious allegation of racism in a city and state with a long, rich history of discriminatory policies against black citizens. But to the author, Kim Severson, it’s merely a jumping-off point to a light-hearted article about whether Southerners need a refresher course from Miss Manners.

To be fair, Severson alludes to the historical context that gives the Atlanta lawsuit meaning—but she does so very, very briefly. And her passing reference to “a social order in which women and blacks were considered less than full citizens” is drowned out by the way in which she introduces the Atlanta bar case. Consider her first two paragraphs:

One August night, two men walked into a popular restaurant attached to this city’s fanciest shopping mall. They sat at the bar, ordered drinks and pondered the menu. Two women stood behind them.

A bartender asked if they would mind offering their seats to the ladies. Yes, they would mind. Very much.

Severson doesn’t mention the race of involved parties until the fourth paragraph, by which time she’s already primed the reader to consider the men involved rude, ungracious, overreacting boors. And she doesn’t mention any details about the incident that support the men’s claims of discrimination (which I found easily in local Atlanta publications but not in the Times): That the men were asked by no fewer than three staff members of the bar to vacate their seats for the white women and were subsequently escorted out by a police officer; that two former employees testified that the bar’s hospitality policy was intended as a means of keeping black crowds to a minimum; that the jury that decided in favor of the bar comprised seven white people but only three African-Americans.

The story of what took place at the Tavern at Phipps in August isn’t a story about the decline of Southern manners; it’s a story about the ways in which Jim Crow-era discriminatory policies continue to reverberate in the South.

Silly trend pieces are usually benign, but they cross the line into harmful when writers treat civil rights issues as nothing more than anecdotes in the service of questionable anthropology-lite conclusions.