A few years ago, I had an encounter on an elevator in the National Press Club that stuck with me. Thinking back, it’s easy for me to connect that particular moment with a recent New York Times feature that has stirred up some interesting chatter online.
So here goes. I stepped onto an already crowded elevator and bumped, sort of, into a distinguished looking young African American man who was headed downstairs with some friends. I made eye contact and quietly said, “Sorry sir.”
One of his friends began laughing and teased his friend by muttering, “I guess you know you’re getting old when people start calling you ‘sir.’ ”
I couldn’t let that one pass. I explained that I grew up in Texas and that my minister father taught me to call everyone “sir” and “ma’am.” I mean, the 10- or 11-year-old kid, black or white, who carried your groceries to the car was called “sir.” Dad always said that dignity and respect were some the most important gifts that could be given to others — starting with young people and, of course, extending to the elderly.
When we reached the ground floor, I stepped out of the elevator at the same time with an older African American man in that same group. Let’s just say that he had as much gray hair as me. In a soft, Southern voice he told me: “Your daddy and my daddy would have gotten along JUST FINE.”
With that story in mind, read the top of the Times piece that ran under the headline, “A Last Bastion of Civility, the South, Sees Manners Decline.”
ATLANTA – 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.
Angry words came next, then a federal court date and a claim for more than $3 million in damages.
The men, a former professional basketball player and a lawyer, also happen to be black. The women are white. The men’s lawyers argued that the Tavern at Phipps used a policy wrapped in chivalry as a cloak for discriminatory racial practices.
After a week’s worth of testimony in September, a jury decided in favor of the bar. Certainly, the owners conceded, filling the bar with women offers an economic advantage because it attracts more men. But in the South, they said, giving up a seat to a lady is also part of a culture of civility.
At least, it used to be.
Clearly, race is a key element of this story — especially the way it is framed in this report. I do not question that. It is also true that the “invasion” of the South by more and more transplants from the North is part of the picture. That is certainly an element that Southerners like to stress.
The story goes out of its way to stress the negative side of this picture, especially in terms of race relations. In other words, the “Thank you, sir” that my father saw as a crucial sign of politeness and respect could also be used, with a twist in the voice, as a means of oppression. I do not doubt that, either.
But is there more to this story than this?
To be sure, strict rules regarding courtesy and deference to others have historically been used as a way to enforce a social order in which women and blacks were considered less than full citizens. In the Jim Crow era, blacks and whites lived with a code of hyper-politeness as a way to smooth the edges of a harsh racial system and, of course, keep it in place, scholars of Southern culture say.
As those issues faded, proper manners remained an important cultural marker that Southerners have worked to maintain. Since the Civil War, any decline in Southern civility has largely been blamed on those damn Yankees.
Newcomers still get much of the blame. In the past decade, the South has seen an unprecedented influx of immigrants from other states and countries. The population in the South grew by 14.3 percent from 2000 to 2010, making it the fastest-growing region in the country.
Then there is cable television. And then there is the Internet. Truth is, the New South is just as connected — especially in big cities — as any other part of the nation. Right? This has produced changes that even transcend race.
Too many outsiders trying to escape the pressures of life in bigger cities have migrated to Atlanta and Birmingham, said Saahara Glaude, a media specialist whose clients include some members of the Martin Luther King Jr. family.
As a result, reliable affinities once based on race or religion are gone. “It used to be that an African-American could trust an African-American down here,” she said. “Those days are long gone.”
Dana Mason, who teaches second grade in Birmingham, says manners have been at the lowest level she has seen in her 36 years in the classroom. Parents who move South tell her they don’t want their children to learn to say “yes, sir” or “yes, ma’am.” Too demeaning, they say.
And so forth and so on. The story jumps from subject to subject — almost all of them valid, in my opinion — until the reader is both saddened and confused. The loss of Sunday dinner bleeds into changing styles in Southern weddings. It’s all here, sort of.
No, something is missing.
I remain convinced that there is no way to approach this issue without talking more about religion, without expanding on that fleeting Times reference that the old ties that bind — race and religion — are no longer enough. Yes, part of the change is generational. Yet the story misses another key element.
Clearly, the Old South contained lots and lots of religion (and politeness) that hid ugliness and sin. That’s a given.
But the flip side is true, as well. There was sincere respect, dignity and justice in parts of that culture and much of it centered on religious values and people of faith — black and white. There were people who were polite to hide things. There were also people who were polite and kind because they believed that was the right way to live. Some of these people were secular. Many, many of them — black and white — were people of faith. Life was far than perfect, but they could sing “Bless be the Ties that Bind” (even if most of their churches tragically remained segregated).
So the New South may be less polite, teaming with people who have no manners. That is a secular story and that is also a religious story. In this case, guess which one got written, to the exclusion of the other?