New York Times Fluff Piece on Manners Sugarcoats Racism

What Women Really Think
Nov. 2 2011 4:33 PM

New York Times Fluff Piece on Manners Sugarcoats Racism

Tuesday’s New York Times included an article about the supposed decline of Southern manners. It is, for the most part, a typical bogus trend piece: full of anecdotes about children who no longer call adults “sir” and “ma’am”; sweeping, impossible-to-prove generalizations (“Civility is also waning at that most civil of events, the Southern wedding”); quotes from scholars, self-proclaimed media specialists, and a hodgepodge of men and women on the street; and cutesy paragraph-ending kickers (“you have a situation where saying ‘thank you, ma’am’ isn’t good enough anymore”).

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

But you wouldn’t know any of that from reading the story’s lede, an account of a conflict that arose at an Atlanta bar when two black men were asked to give up their seats to two white women. The men sued the establishment for $3 million, claiming that its policy of “Southern hospitality” was applied disproportionately against African-Americans and amounted to harassment, but lost the case.


That sounds like a pretty serious allegation of racism in a city and state with a long, rich history of discriminatory policies against black citizens. But to the author, Kim Severson, it’s merely a jumping-off point to a light-hearted article about whether Southerners need a refresher course from Miss Manners.

To be fair, Severson alludes to the historical context that gives the Atlanta lawsuit meaning—but she does so very, very briefly. And her passing reference to “a social order in which women and blacks were considered less than full citizens” is drowned out by the way in which she introduces the Atlanta bar case. Consider her first two paragraphs:

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.

Severson doesn’t mention the race of involved parties until the fourth paragraph, by which time she’s already primed the reader to consider the men involved rude, ungracious, overreacting boors. And she doesn’t mention any details about the incident that support the men’s claims of discrimination (which I found easily in local Atlanta publications but not in the Times): That the men were asked by no fewer than three staff members of the bar to vacate their seats for the white women and were subsequently escorted out by a police officer; that two former employees testified that the bar’s hospitality policy was intended as a means of keeping black crowds to a minimum; that the jury that decided in favor of the bar comprised seven white people but only three African-Americans.

The story of what took place at the Tavern at Phipps in August isn’t a story about the decline of Southern manners; it’s a story about the ways in which Jim Crow-era discriminatory policies continue to reverberate in the South.

Silly trend pieces are usually benign, but they cross the line into harmful when writers treat civil rights issues as nothing more than anecdotes in the service of questionable anthropology-lite conclusions.



The World’s Politest Protesters

The Occupy Central demonstrators are courteous. That’s actually what makes them so dangerous.

The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:58 PM The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The Feds Have Declared War on Encryption—and the New Privacy Measures From Apple and Google

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You

It spreads slowly.

These “Dark” Lego Masterpieces Are Delightful and Evocative


Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.


Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Activists Are Trying to Save an Iranian Woman Sentenced to Death for Killing Her Alleged Rapist

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

  News & Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?