South Carolina and America

I lived in South Carolina for ten years, moving there just as the debate over the Confederate flag was reaching fever pitch. Although I don’t know Charleston well, the massacre at Emanuel AME Church hit home to me in unexpected ways. From social media, I learned that friends and colleagues had studied with Rev. Pinckney at Lutheran Southern Theological Seminary. I also read about the bomb scare at Allen AME Church in Greenville on Thursday. Greenville was the city where I worked for ten years.

I’ve also been reading a great deal about the continuing presence of the confederate flag on the grounds of South Carolina’s Capitol and the renewed effort to remove it. Over my years in the South, I developed a visceral fear of it–avoiding people and places where it was displayed. But the flag is only the most visible symbol of a deeper problem. As John Stewart mentioned in the monologue I linked to in a previous post, in the South, African-Americans are forced to drive on streets named for Confederate Generals. I drove on one such street everyday–Wade Hampton Boulevard in Greenville. It’s named after the Confederate General and first white governor of South Carolina after reconstruction. Indeed, Hampton helped to orchestrate the white takeover of the state through his involvement with the paramilitary group the Redshirts. There is also, by the way, Wade Hampton High School. The familiarity and ubiquity of the name helped to obscure the reality of who he was and what he’d done.

I remember standing in line at the polls on Election Day in 2008, less than a mile from that school. The electorate there was probably 75%or 80% white, mostly working class. We came dressed as we were, for work, or for errands, many in shorts and T-shirts. The whites, most of them, seemed apprehensive. The blacks who came brought their whole families. There were grandparents with their grandchildren, wanting them to witness history. There was a young man, 18 or 19 years old, casting his first vote. He wore a suit and tie. Just as one could sense the apprehension among any of the whites, the  hope of the African-Americans was palpable. They saw, the older ones the first time in many years, for the younger, for the first time ever, the possibility of a different future, a different nation, a different state.

One of the difficult things for northerners to understand is the complicated way racism plays out in the South. I don’t fully understand it, can’t hope to but I do know that there’s the possibility today for a real reckoning with the legacy and present reality of racism in South Carolina. But if that reckoning only takes place in the context of a debate over the confederate flag, it will fail. It will fail to address the racism that is at the heart of the state and the region. It will fail to address 450 years of violent subjugation of African-Americans of which the Charleston Massacre is only the most recent incident.

If there’s a a national focus on what’s wrong with South Carolina, we will escape the necessary reckoning with our national sin of racism. For racism isn’t a regional problem. It’s a national one. There may be subtle differences between South and North but racism pervades our nation. We in the North have been willing to say too often that it’s a problem for the South or that the work of undoing it is done–whether with victory in the Civil War, or Reconstruction, or the Civil Rights Movement. Unfortunately, racism is too pervasive, too insidious, to be undone by a single act or movement.

From my friend, the Rev. Michael Sullivan: We are all South Carolina

But to think that South Carolina has the monopoly on racism and the institutionalized, unacknowledged, systemic degradation of humanity is a part of our American problem.

Jack Hitt (a native of Charleston), on The New Yorker blog, offers some additional historical background.

From Tiffany Stanley (Religion and Politics), who grew up in South Carolina:

History pervades Charleston, but publicly it often offers a selective memory. The city and the state have been slow to reckon with their legacies. Just off the coast, the first shots of the Civil War rang out. By some estimates, nearly half of all Africans who were brought to America during the slave trade entered through the ports of Charleston and its surrounding areas. The legacy of racism, of Jim Crow, and of slavery’s brutality mark each cobblestone step and grand home that still stand. And yet, visitors are too often given a sanitized image of the Old South—genteel accents, hoop skirts, and sweetgrass baskets.

Of course, the target of that sanitized history is not just Charlestonians. It’s us. It’s all of those tourists from other parts of the country and the world who come to visit. I remember taking a tour of a a plantation house in Virginia some years ago, during which the tour guide kept referring to the “servants.” Slavery, the labor and people that made that house and lifestyle possible, had been completely erased from the story.