The Crab Louie Story
Parables of regional prejudice
In January of 1999, three thousand miles from my Atlanta home on a month long landscape photography trip, I pulled into a poorly maintained roadside restaurant somewhere on the 101 in south Oregon. It sported the roofline of a former Pizza Hut, and I discovered once inside it also retained the same uncomfortable plywood seating booths and opaque red plastic cups. I remember neither the name of the restaurant, nor the town, but I believe it to have been somewhere south of Florence, as I’d taken photos of the sea lion caves that morning.
I sat, and ordered tea that was frustratingly unsweet.
The waiter was a twenty something man with short, brown, curly hair and uninteresting eyes. Like everyone in the 90s, he wore flannel and jeans.
I wanted Dungeness crab. As the offspring of Virginians with close ties to the Chesapeake, I’ve always been a blue crab fan. I steam them live and spend the hours necessary to turn them into small piles of backfin and large piles of gore. Dungeness are basically huge blue crabs, and therefore much less of a pain in the ass on a per-bite-basis. I wanted to try one. I scanned the menu.
“Do you have any crab?”
“All we have is a Crab Louie.”
“I’ll take that,” I said, having no idea what a Crab Louie even was. Turns out it’s basically a garden salad with a pile of crab on top. Okay. I sipped my frustratingly unsweet tea and surveilled my surroundings.
The walls were dark, again likening unto the décor of a nineties Pizza Hut, down to the marginally functional Ms. Pac-Man machine. A local couple sat one booth to my rear, and the waiter bantered with them. They seemed to know each other. At one point their conversation turned to an Eric Berneian game of “Ain’t it Awful,” wherein they spent a few minutes bitching with each other about the Flatlanders before the local couple paid and left.
Who, I wondered, were these Flatlanders?
I asked my waiter.
At first he was very evasive, as if I’d been offended by the term. I assured him that as the likely only Georgian within a ten mile radius, there’s no possible way that he and my booth neighbors could have been complaining about me. I settled him down, and he spilled the beans.
Flatlanders, he said, were southern Californians who moved to Oregon to get away from the Los Angeles rat race because of Oregon’s grandiose nature and slower pace of living. They’d make their money in LA or similar and retire to Oregon, but they wouldn’t leave their southern Californian habits with them. Rude in the grocery store. Never took their grocery carts back. Tailgated you on the roads, flashing their lights, honking their horns. Spoke loudly and without politeness or grace. Acted like they owned the place whenever they walked in. Just generally disagreeable people. He wished they’d stop moving to Oregon.
“Ohhhh, Flatlanders! Yeah, we have those in Atlanta too. We call them Yankees.”
I about fell out of my chair at my witty repartee. I thought this was the funniest joke. He did not. As the color drained from his face, he stared at me as if I was about to hang a black man from a tree and he stomped off. He brought me my garden salad with a pile crab on top, and my bill, without saying another word to me.
I left the exchange struck by how oblivious my waiter was to his own open display of regional prejudice against me, as if he was immune to such things by virtue of being a west coast liberal.
A year later I found myself on the west coast again with my then fiancé Buffy, as she decided between Stanford and MIT as her masters degree destination. I hadn’t yet received my masters in fluid mechanics, but I wasn’t dumb, and we both carried fine engineering credentials from Georgia Tech. A graduate student accompanied us on a campus tour, replete with central California weather and all black squirrels that seemed demon possessed when they stared at you from wayward bushes.
Every introduction was the same.
“This is Buffy Thomas, and this is her boyfriend BJ. They’re from Georgia.”
“Hi. B. J. It’s. Nice. To. Meet. You.” They talked slowly to me, as if I was only capable of carrying on a meaningful conversation about pig farming and chewing tobacco. In my mind I screamed at them and challenged them to a Tensor Calculus duel, sure to destroy their arrogance and flippancy towards me on the battlefield of the dry erase board. I did none of these things, because my job was not to defend my honor, it was to carry my fiancé’s luggage and not be an ass.
I left the exchange with the same impression as the Crab Louie encounter. Struck by how oblivious my interlocutors were to their prejudices, as if they was immune to such things by virtue of being west coast liberals.
My younger brother has a story he likes to tell on occasion, when one of his close high school friends married a New York girl who’s father was a very important employee of the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. The wedding and reception were both in the Waldorf, and the groomsmen were all Georgians, who travelled to New York for the event.
At one point during one of the earlier proceedings, perhaps the rehearsal dinner, my brother tells of a cocktail party where he and his friends were milling about with the bride’s side of the cohort, in formal attire, sipping cocktails in a penthouse overlooking Midtown East. One of the bride’s friends to whom my brother was newly acquainted turned to him and said, “you know, there were supposed to be some Georgians here tonight, but I don’t see any yet.” My brother replied, “oh I’m terribly sorry, you’ll have to excuse me. I think I may have double parked my cow.”
I cannot speak for my brother’s impression of this encounter, but his description struck me with the same Crab Louie impression. This man was oblivious to his regional prejudices as if he was immune to such things by virtue of being a New York liberal.
None of these prejudicial displays were particularly harmful. Shrug and move on. It-Is-What-It-Is. Not my circus not my monkeys. Assuredly less impactful that what black folks deal with on the regular. But I wonder if there isn’t more to be learned from how similar they all were.
When I look across these stories and try to draw explanations, I find several options. Occam’s Razor might lead me to simply believe that everyone universally thinks southerners are dumb hicks, but I don’t think that’s true. In my travels through New York, Long Island, and similar areas I found I was treated wonderfully by the regular joes I met in bars, laundry mats, and grocery stores. The prejudice seemed directly proportional to both the level of liberalness and money on display. I’ve never once experienced regional prejudice from anyone in Flyover Country, or Nevada, or eastern California.
I believe the deeper thing going on is in this map.
Southerners live and work with black people. The worst racism prior to the 1960s unequivocally happened here. The civil rights movement mostly happened here. Forced integration at gunpoint happened here. We go on field trips to Martin Luther King’s house. We devote lots of time to education about civil rights in public school. We talk about prejudice. We have to, because we entrust our health to black doctors, our cars to black mechanics, our freedom to black lawyers, and our profession to our relationships with black professionals. Atlanta is actually integrated. Assuredly not perfectly, but it beats the hell out of places like Detroit, where 8 Mile cuts the city literally in half.
An essential part of integration is being aware of your prejudices, and our history as southerners forces us to reckon with them.
Another part of integration is having people with which to integrate. You can’t be racially integrated if you don’t have any other races. Portland is 3% black. Seattle and LA are 6%. San Jose is 2%. San Francisco is 7% but only after you include Oakland, and nobody ever goes there. Yet those places are where the 2020 Floyd protests were the hottest.
All this points to one thing. Southerners are generally aware of their prejudices. If a southerner is racist, they know they’re racist. They’ll admit it up front. But being a rich liberal in a coastal elite zone with no diversity of either race or thought is a breeding ground for prejudice. Being in a place like that allows you to ignore it. Some people in these areas even seem to think that the voting booth is a confession booth that absolves them of any responsibility to examine their own prejudice.
And that makes me think that this giant wave of white guilt and Woke self-flagellation we saw in 2020 might not have been a universally flawed ideology after all. Maybe by saying “all white people are racist,” what they meant to say was “all white people we know are racist,” or more to the point, “we are racist.” It might have finally been the moment when they woke up to what they are.
And if that’s the case, then all they need to do to adjust their belief system to better fit the truth is simply admit that they can’t speak for me. Which is Peggy McIntosh’s Knapsack all over again.
[White Liberal Privilege is] the unquestioned and unearned set of advantages, entitlements, benefits, and choices bestowed upon people solely because they are white. Generally white people who experience such privilege do so without being conscious of it.
No, Peggy, that’s your rich family Radcliffe educated liberal coastal elite Martha’s Vineyard never-met-a-real-black-person-in-your-life privilege, and you don’t get to push it on others to assuage your own guilt. Not to say that all rich Radcliffe educated liberal coastal elite Martha’s Vinyard never-met-a-real-black-person people behave this way, because that would be prejudiced to say. But you can certainly see it when some do.
If someone built a Google Chrome web browser extension that replaced the phrase “white liberal privilege” with “mostly rich white bicoastal privilege” in every website, then perhaps everything that’s gone on the past half decade would suddenly make a lot more sense.
If you know how to do that, let me know in the comments.