When I returned to California after doing political work in Georgia, I remember being met with questions like “What was it like living down there?” or “What was it like being in the South?”, that implied less of a genuine curiosity about my experiences and more a desire to confirm what they already thought. Far away from the safe haven of progressive politics, I must have witnessed the horrors of American bigotry.
My responses certainly weren’t satisfactory to them. I grew up in a suburb of the Bay Area about a 45-minute drive from San Francisco. In Georgia I lived and worked in a suburb about 45 minutes outside Atlanta, where a large component of my job was to go door to door in neighborhoods. I found the Georgia suburb to be less residentially segregated along racial and ethnic lines than what I was used to at home.
At the 5Cs, it is easy to get sucked into the notion that by virtue of being in a liberal institution in a relatively progressive state we are in a haven of inclusivity. There is a strong tendency to engage in a coastal elitist mindset where generally rural and Southern areas are regarded as somehow behind, especially regarding social issues. This mode of thinking exists both in the classroom and in casual conversation. Dismissing entire regions and groups of people based on preconceived notions and prejudices can be hurtful and is usually false.
It is essential that the 5C community examine its regional biases. Engaging in a coastal elitist mindset is not only divisive but can also create a dangerous complacency. The idea that urban coastal communities are inherently less racist, classist, sexist or homophobic than their rural Southern and Middle American counterparts discourages us from thinking critically about disparities in our own communities.
It is critical to separate structural problems from people and places themselves. It is undeniable that the legacy of Jim Crow persists specifically in the South. There are legitimate historical and current instances of discrimination and legal predjudice specific to this region that are not present in the same way in others. It is critical to address these injustices and understand how they continue to affect the lives of marginalized groups today. However, just because Southern states implemented blatantly racist policies, it doesn’t mean that the North and West have ever been free of racism. We should think critically about these issues and historical legacies nationwide rather than limiting criticism to certain regions.
Instead of falling into the trap of engaging in a coastal elitist mindset, we should examine our biases and adopt a more nuanced way of thinking. We have seen that our community is far from perfect: the return to campus has seen incidents of hate, controversial administrative decisions and the continued challenges of institutional exclusion that constantly plague higher education. Ultimately, giving ourselves a pat on the back for being part of a California college is lazy. The choice to think relatively with a coastal elitist mindset, rather than internally with a self-critical lens is also a choice of whether to engage with difficult truths or scapegoat them. Talking in coastal elitist terms is a choice to complain. Self-reflective discussion is a choice to engage.
We must think critically about our 5C and greater California communities rather than bashing rural, central and Southern regions. Monolithic thought not only sows division between our community and the rest of the country, but creates a dangerous complacency within the Claremont bubble. We ought to judge ourselves before we judge others, doing research and taking more time to understand the complex social issues that exist locally and across the U.S.
It is unfair to perpetuate harmful regional stereotypes that can be hurtful to people who call these places home. Ultimately, however, when we engage in this kind of thinking, the ones we hurt most are ourselves.
Madison Lewis PO ’23 is from Palo Alto, California. She is a former field organizer for the Colorado Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Georgia.