- Better Than Them: The Unmaking of an Alabama Racist by S. McEachin Otts
In this poignant, painstakingly candid memoir, S. McEachin “Mac” Otts recounts a conversion from his racist youth. He does so through a series of vignettes, starting with his recollection of the July 16, 1965, civil rights march in his native Greensboro. On that day an enraged eighteen-year-old Otts stood on the street curb wielding a tire iron, ready to defy the perceived threat the peaceful demonstrators posed to his way of life. This dramatic backdrop sets the stage for the rest of the memoir and serves as the crucial focal point of reflection that threads the other narratives together. What follows is a thoughtful examination of the environment that nurtured his preconceived notions about race (particularly his family’s proud, storied antebellum heritage) and the crucial events and interactions with particular individuals that collectively deconstructed his racist disposition gradually over time.
Otts’s conversion from racism can best be described as an evolutionary process. It is clear that over the course of his transformation, Otts developed a profound understanding of this multifaceted, perplexing phenomenon that relatively few ever obtain. In an age where our society still largely conceptualizes racism in stark contrasts of black and white, good and bad, racism versus non-racism (when we should view racism as a spectrum with varying shades of gray), Otts astutely recognizes that it is far more complicated than that. In placing his own “turning point” [End Page 375] around the age of twenty–four, Otts explains that this “was not a literal point in time at all. It was more the approximate middle of a curve” (111). Otts reveals the depth of his awareness of the complexity of racism when he highlights perhaps the greatest paradox of all: that people can be both prejudiced and decent human beings in other aspects of their lives (74).
While Otts clearly recognizes that there are several causes of racism, the one factor that he believes loomed largest in his racist disposition (and he is convinced the same can be said for many others) was a need to bolster his self-esteem. The descendants of some of antebellum Greensboro’s esteemed and wealthy families, the Otts of the mid-twentieth century had none of their ancestors’ wealth, but clung tenaciously to that nostalgic heritage. This included not only feigning affluence but also judging African Americans as their inferiors. Otts’s grandmother’s chilling words to her young grandson helped form and epitomize his racist disposition: “You are better than them. Don’t forget it” (4). While the psychology of self-esteem is a crucial cause of racism to Otts throughout the book, he does qualify this emphasis by the end of his memoir.
Towards the end, Otts analyzes the interviews he held with four Greensboro natives who lived through the Civil Rights movement, two black and two white. Unlike Otts, these individuals have spent most or all of their lives in the area. One point that all four interviewees noted is the effect that chronic rural poverty has had on race relations in the Black Belt, a region where de facto segregation still exists in various aspects of society, including the work force. With the opportunities of mobility (social or physical) being slim to none for the Black Belt’s inhabitants, racism has served as a scapegoat in which both races blame the region’s ills on the other. Noting that he had originally underrated the connection between rural poverty and racism, Otts becomes convinced that this crucial factor must also be taken into consideration. While there is unquestionably something to be said for the affiliation between poor self esteem and bigotry, the relationship between racism and rural poverty may actually be more significant because alleviation of poverty in the Black Belt would go a long way in boosting the self-esteem of all its citizens, which in turn could gradually improve race relations over time.