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Race Relations in East Texas -- Travelers to East Texas might well wonder about visiting here. In the last dozen years there have been several news stories about racially motivated hate crimes. These stories provoke -- but leave unanswered -- questions like "Will visitors feel safe here? Will they feel welcome?" And because the news coverage focuses on the crime first and the community second, it can invoke in the reader's mind the prevailing image of the old Southern town -- closed, repressive, and ready to explode, where outsiders are viewed as either meddlers or provocateurs. This isn't the case, but one can't deny that racial prejudice exists in East Texas, that there are groups of the Klan here, and that hate crimes have occurred. Given these facts, you might be surprised by what I say next -- that race relations in East Texas, as they play out day-to-day, are far from seething; that they are actually open, respectful, and even cordial. I've spent time in these places and I've looked into this issue. The Klansmen may be out there, but they are isolated and marginalized. Their rallies are usually better attended by the press than by their own members. In short, civil society in East Texas is not broken and divided.

A case in point is the town of Jasper (pop. 9,000), where James Byrd, an African-American man, was brutally murdered by three whites in 1998. I was there some years ago on an assignment to interview people from all sectors of society. I went expecting to find a polarized community, but what I heard and saw convinced me that Jasper was no powder keg. Roughly half of the town's population is black, and blacks occupy several of the most powerful positions in the community, including the office of mayor. Their personal safety was a nonissue for them. Yes, some people were thought to be prejudiced, but they didn't consider these people dangerous, even though one of the killers did, in fact, come from the community. The black and white communities in Jasper do tend to congregate among themselves, but they also interact and share a sense of community.

In other East Texas towns, I've encountered a greater or lesser degree of separation, but always with an easy interaction. The exception to this is the all-white town of Vidor (pop. 11,000), which lies about 10 miles east of Beaumont. Vidor is infamous as a stronghold of the Klan. It has been labeled by Texas Monthly magazine as the most hate-filled town in Texas. In 1994, the Department of Housing and Urban Development persuaded four black families to integrate Vidor's public housing, but after being harassed, snubbed, and threatened, these families chose to move.

Integration still hasn't made it to Vidor, but it has to the rest of East Texas. Its progress, to be sure, has been uneven. Vestiges of segregation remain, especially with housing: A recent study found Beaumont and Port Arthur to have the most segregated neighborhoods of any large city in Texas. Progress has been quicker in fields such as education, employment opportunities, and access to services. Nowadays racial discrimination has retreated to more subtle manifestations (the same sort of thing you'll find elsewhere) and the infrequent but chilling acts of a small throwback group filled with hate.

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