Chauvinistic Southerners like me are hard to please. We don’t like it when visitors pop in and out and say that the South has changed so much that it looks like everywhere else; but we don’t like it when folks come calling and say that nothing important has changed, either. In a recent article in The American Spectator, an expatriate Mississippian named James Harkness did just that. He really should know better.

Harkness grew up in Greenwood, but now he lives in upstate New York. He clearly wants us to recognize that he’s come a long way from his Mississippi roots, and, for better or for worse, he obviously has. But origins will tell—he writes like an angel. I just wish I agreed with more of what he has to say.

Harkness went back to his hometown for a visit and was apparently ticked off to discover that Mississippi is not an equitable, color-blind society. Like (one might ask) where? He does not vouchsafe to us what part of the U.S. he would have Greenwood emulate, and I doubt very much that he could be pleased by the white attitudes to be found in any American town with a significant black presence (much less any, like Greenwood, with a substantial black majority).

Now I’ve never been to Greenwood. I’ve never done more than briefly visit the Deep South. Maybe Harkness is right and things in the Mississippi Delta are pretty much what they always have been. Maybe race relations and conditions for blacks arc better in upstate New York or in Chicago or Detroit or the other cities to which black Mississippians have historically migrated. Maybe so.

But you wouldn’t know to read his articles that for the past decade and a half more blacks have been moving to the South (in most cases, probably, returning there) than have been leaving it. You wouldn’t know from his article that the South is the only part of the country where the percentage of black families living in poverty has decreased in the past few years, or that that percentage is lower now than in the Midwest. You wouldn’t know that Mississippi now has more black elected officials than any other state in the country, or that a higher proportion of blacks hold public office in the South than in any other region. You wouldn’t know that an increasing number of Southern politicians, black and white, have been elected by biracial coalitions. You wouldn’t know that a majority of Southern whites now tell the Gallup Poll that they’d vote for a black for President. (OK, so some of them are lying, but what they think they ought to say is important, too.)

No, the South isn’t a color-blind society. What some of us hope it is becoming is a working and relatively decent biracial society—a rather different thing. (If it can be done, it will be no small accomplishment; I remember a college political science course that held up as examples of successful multiethnic societies Switzerland and . . . Lebanon.) Not all whites share that goal. Not all are happy about the prospect. But a good many of us are. Harkness has little use for what he calls the “old, humorous, relentlessly superficial affability” of my region, but I suggest that it’s close kin to the quality known elsewhere as civility, and that it will get us through this if anything can.

I’m not one of those who feels that Southern whites are uniquely fitted to instruct the world on race relations. Harkness makes fun of those who see something of value in the South’s unhappy history on this score, and he may be right to do so. But for whatever reason—luck has something to do with it, and so do the goodwill and political skills of black Southerners—things are looking up in those parts of the South that I know best. And they may even be looking up in Greenwood.

There’s no evidence in his article that Harkness talked to any blacks at all during his short visit, much less to any who had come back from the cities of the upper Midwest. On his next visit, he might try that. He could ask them whether they think anything of importance has changed.

It’s OK to talk to black folks now, James. They’ll even tell you what they think. And maybe that’s the most important change of all.