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CNN Exchange: Commentary

Commentary: Racism in Texas more than skin deep

By Helen Larsh
Special to CNN
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Editor's Note: Helen Larsh, a former mayor of Silsbee, Texas, is a math teacher at Silsbee High School. She was a member of the audience at the December 19 CNN Town Hall "Out in Open: Racism in America."

Silsbee, TEXAS (CNN) -- I was a member of the audience at a recent CNN forum on racism held in Beaumont, Texas. ("Out in the Open: Racism in America," December 19). I believe that the show's focus on racism in southeast Texas was much too narrow.

It really wasn't entirely clear to me whether the show had its own agenda, or if it just missed the nuances of how racism and prejudice exist in this part of the country.

I have lived in Silsbee, Texas, a town about 20 minutes outside of Beaumont, for 35 years.

I grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, and am a graduate of Duke University. I was on the Silsbee City Council for 18 years and was mayor for two of those years. I am also a math teacher in the Silsbee school district.

From my experience as a member of this community, as a mother of two children who grew up here and as a teacher to hundreds of high school students who were raised in this environment, I believe that there are many variables in the way prejudice is revealed here. Indeed, it is multifaceted and not necessarily due to skin color. Surely, there are those who will look down on another because of the color of his or her skin. In that sense, yes, a portion of the racism here -- and in any of America's regions, states, cities or hamlets -- is, as the show noted, skin deep. But it is also more nuanced than that.

The prejudice that we confront is often a factor of education, economics and social condition. People who have limited education generally do not have the broadening experiences that will allow them to see beyond skin color. This creates a social condition where people are more comfortable among their own race, class and level of education. People who are struggling financially often feel threatened by those who they feel are competing for the same jobs. These are some of the factors can lead to a bias that an outsider perceives as racism.

The insider sees prejudice as an expression of hopelessness and a resistance to change. Anyone who comes into such a provincial environment from the outside, no matter their skin color, is looked at with a jaundiced eye because they are different. The fact that this can lead to prejudice does not excuse it but might to some degree explain it.

Silsbee is a multiethnic community and we all strive very hard to get along. Sometimes we do. Sometimes we don't.

Is that any different than Memphis, Tennessee? Or Los Angeles, California? Or Omaha, Nebraska? Or New Bedford, Massachusetts? I actually believe that my children saw more overt racism when they moved away from home to places including Dallas, Texas, Houston, Texas, and Miami, Florida.

During the CNN broadcast, members of the audience were told to raise our hand during the commercials if we wanted to ask a question or make a comment. I had a few things that I thought would have contributed to the discussion but didn't get a chance to speak. I know that shows are pressed for time and have to pack a lot into an hour, but I left the show feeling that things had remained unsaid. That's why I wanted to take this opportunity to share my thoughts on CNN's Web site to help facilitate further discussion of the topic online.

The focus on Vidor, Texas, was unnecessarily harsh. I realize through my years in this part of the country that Vidor has a history of racism. Yes, the Klan did march there. Yes, crosses were burned there. But I also think that the community as a whole is trying to move past its history. Several members of the audience were quick to point out their negative experiences in Vidor. Their struggles and experiences are horrible and terribly unfortunate, but their experiences cannot speak for everyone who has ever been to Vidor. Nor do they speak for southeast Texas in general.

There are other communities in southeast Texas that remain almost completely segregated. Still, many of these communities are as complex and troubled, as conflicted and confused, as desirous to break out of the past and into the present as Vidor. Surely, we all must hope that they are successful in that journey.

I am glad that Paula Zahn and CNN came here to try to put some light on the issue of racism and prejudice. I just hope that next time they will widen their focus and look more deeply at the causes -- as well as the symptoms -- of this problem.

What is your take on this commentary? E-mail us

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the writer. This is part of an occasional series of commentaries on CNN.com that offers a broad range of perspectives, thoughts and points of view.

Your responses

CNN.com asked readers for their thoughts on this commentary. We received a lot of excellent responses. Below you will find a small selection of those e-mails, some of which have been edited for length and spelling.

Bob Thomas, Franklin, North Carolina
I am a Native American and I used to live in Vidor, Texas for 13 years. Vidor isn't so bad to live in, it's a sleepy little town along the busy IH-10 until someone or something awakens it, just like any other town in America. The press needs to back-off and let Vidor breathe in new life. It doesn't matter what skin color, ethnicity, or religion you were, there are always positive and negative experiences living in small towns; everyone thinks and live differently. Isn't this normal in any town?

Ira Collier, San Angelo, Texas
The lady is correct about racism. 99% of behavior that is called "racist" is nothing more than typical human behavior. Also, how about going to Washington DC, Miami, Detroit, St. Louis, etc. and see which color of people are the racists? Oh no, you yankees at CNN want to prove how wonderful you are and how stupid and evil white people are.

Vaughn Franklin, Hurst, Texas
I love how she tries to deflect racism in her cities by giving examples of racism in other cities. Racism is wrong no matter what city it is in. Now what we need to do is figure out how to solve the problem.

Sage McKinley, St. Louis, Missouri
While I know that racism is alive and well in in south Texas, I would like to see CNN do a story on racism in the northern part of the United States. Racist behavior may not be as overtly expressed in these areas, but that doesn't necessarily make it less dangerous. "The enemy you know..."

Rick Williams, Byron, Georgia
She stresses that her small town is no worse than any other city or hamlet in America but misses the real point. Because her town is so small racism and discrimination have a bigger impact on those affected by it than in a big city. I commend Ms. Larsh for trying to defend her community in an intelligent manner but must inform her that her views do nothing towards correcting the years of bigotry nor do they address the devastating impact this legacy has had and continues to have on those directly impacted by it.


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Helen Larsh says the focus of CNN's racism special was too narrow.

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