Inside the numbers: The prom

Posted: May 13, 2003 12:00 AM

Over the past weeks, television news superstar Bill O'Reilly and other respected journalists have focused their disgruntled attention on an "all-white" private party held in Georgia's small and predominantly rural Taylor County.

White high-school students there chose to hold a privately funded alternative prom party, separate from the school district's integrated event. The target of most of the outrage over this pitiful event has been Georgia's first Republican governor in 130 years, Sonny Perdue. O'Reilly and friends argue that Perdue should have immediately condemned this obviously offensive party.

For the record, one must note that Perdue had an incredibly rocky start to this term in office. He has weathered a divisive battle that could have ultimately restored the Confederate battle emblem to the state flag, and he has also struggled with state lawmakers on how to balance a budget in tough economic times.

Our InsiderAdvantage poll shows Gov. Perdue with a 53 percent approval rating among Georgians, a relatively decent number considering his shaky start.

I have no quibble with O'Reilly's stance on the prom issue. And it was likely a mistake for Perdue to decline an early invitation to appear on "The O'Reilly Factor," generally considered the most popular cable news/talk program in the nation.

But as one who's appeared on O'Reilly's show, and who also personally knows Georgia's new governor, I feel it fair to share more than just polling numbers on the controversy.

For those Southerners who have taken offense to O'Reilly's comments, let me say he's been careful to note that he doesn't believe the actions taken in Taylor County reflect the opinion of most Georgians. Viewers should remember that O'Reilly's goal is to avoid the typical "talking head" boredom of evening cable programs. His job is to stir the pot.

It's also fair to assume that even Gov. Perdue was probably a little surprised at his upset victory last November. He's new on the job, and it takes time for new leaders to decide when or if it is their place to comment on issues, even those as offensive as the all-white prom in Taylor County. To be blunt, most Georgians don't even know where Taylor County is, nor do they pay any attention to its small town happenings.

To date, Perdue hasn't appeared on O'Reilly's show. If he does, the governor should highlight his experiences as a foster parent to African-American children. And while he should defend the right for individuals to assemble privately, he should also condemn the effect this "private party" could have on those not invited to the celebration.

Several other journalists have suggested that Taylor County is evidence the "New South" does not exist. What nonsense. Do these writers realize that Georgia is dominated by an Atlanta skyline that houses more than four million people -- most of whom are transients from the North, Midwest and West Coast? Are they blind to the fact that Atlanta is arguably the center of African-American wealth and power in the United States -- a city where nationally known African American journalists, entertainers, artists, politicians and business leaders work side-by-side with their white, Hispanic and Asian counterparts?

The fact that most Georgians, indeed most Southerners, aren't pitching a fit over the Taylor Counties of the world doesn't mean they are racially insensitive. Rather, they see such behavior as so backward and so rare in the New South that they view it as happening in some far-off place -- much as they would view past acts of racism in Boston, New York or Los Angeles.

Ironically, the man Sonny Perdue defeated, former Gov. Roy Barnes, this week receives the prestigious John F. Kennedy "Profile in Courage" award. Barnes, who speaks with the slow Southern drawl that the rest of America so often assigns to "ignorant Southerners," will once again prove that characterization incorrect.

Hopefully, Gov. Perdue will decide to set the record straight on "The O'Reilly Factor." I suspect that both he and the FOX News hosts would be pleasantly surprised by an encounter. Regardless, Bill O'Reilly has made his point concerning Taylor County. And when O'Reilly speaks, people listen.