Do People Think The South Owns The Rights To Racism?

Last week it seemed like everyone was on Twitter at once when the New York Times' David Firestone called out South Carolina for being a leader in racist thought and allowances. One might think that Firestone would acknowledge the complexities of living in the South, since he spent a number of years in the newspaper's Atlanta bureau.

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On the other hand, the NYT Atlanta bureau has had some instances in filing unresearched, grandiose stories about our failings as a state. Not that South Carolina doesn't have plenty of failings, but I like to think that one should look up things like timelines, agendas, minutes, transcripts and such before making a claim on what was or was not decided at a city council meeting. Maybe that's just me.*

However, Firestone's piece showed that his Southern Experience must have been pretty dismal and pretty limited. In it he takes the asinine comments made by Cliven Bundy (to use Kathleen Parker's paraphrase from her thoughtful and interesting take: "'The Negro,' Bundy further observed, aborts babies and puts 'their young men' in prisons. Young black males were in trouble, he said, because they hadn’t been taught to pick cotton.") and zips them up in a bag alongside Sen. Glenn McConnell and the late Maurice Bessinger (see my Free Times article about whether there's hope for Bessinger's successors here). Firestone turned the rants of a Nevada rancher into a Southern Thing. Just as Bundy assumes that all "Negroes" are tied to the sordid history of the Southern cotton business, Firestone seems to assume all racism stems from South Carolina.

In that state, it is not considered a stain to have fought passionately to keep the Confederate flag flying on top of the Capitol dome, or to have appeared on a notorious white-nationalist radio program in 2007. (All of this is meticulously chronicled on the website of the invaluable Southern Poverty Law Center.)

No reputational damage was done even when Mr. McConnell, a well-known Civil War re-enactor and then president pro-tem of the Senate, appeared in a 2010 photograph dressed as a Confederate general, standing between a black man and a woman dressed as slaves.
— David Firestone, "Slavery Nostalgia Is Real, And Dangerous" The New York Times, 24 April 2014

I read those words and my first thought was: Oh, fun! Let's do this! 

Then I realized that I had to pack for a week of travel, which allowed me to simmer down a bit and organize my thoughts into specific points.

1) The South doesn't own the rights to racism, nor did the region invent it

Yes, there are a lot of racist people in the Palmetto State. When I first moved here with my family in 1989 I wasn't even allowed through the door of the main building of the country club where I briefly took tennis lessons. The pro quit his job over it. A couple of years later, my parents were members of that club, and when a few old codgers expressed their anger, the board president told them that they should probably just go find another club to join. Good luck getting in. Really. Good luck with that.

Now that club--which has a golf course and tennis facility that people dream of playing--has a membership that is more diverse than any I've been to anywhere else in the country. 

In my lifetime I've had lovely words lobbed at me such as:

  • "Black bitch"
  • "She tries to act so white."
  • "Nigger"
  • "She thinks she's made it because she married a white guy."

I'm sure there's more, I tend to have a selective memory. But guess what? Not all of the words and phrases listed above were uttered below the Mason-Dixon line. Some of the most horrible, racist, institutionalized comments I've ever encountered were spoken within the walls of hip or elegant New York dining establishments. I've even been turned away--within the last few years--from such an establishment in the great metropolis. Racism is alive everywhere, Mr. Firestone. It's even alive in your beloved Brooklyn, which is in New York, which was one of the first states to allow the practice of slavery in the U.S.

2) "In that state, it is not considered a stain to have fought passionately to keep the Confederate flag flying on top of the Capitol dome..."

South Carolina is a state that actively pursues economic development partnerships with international corporations, and is home to many companies that deal with global suppliers and clientele. This state has intellectual, corporate and political leaders who are integral parts of such programs as the Aspen Institute, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American - Swiss Foundation Fellows, and quite a bit more. Anyone in a current position of importance who may have fought to keep the stars-and-bars on the highest perch of the capitol dome (and there are few) would be of questionable sanity to parade such a fact around. The "pride" crowds have dwindled to a few derelict-looking folks who gather at the capitol from time to time, and you'd be hard pressed to find a passerby who didn't think they looked ridiculous or sad.

A cute lil' rally I drove past in Columbia a few months ago...

A cute lil' rally I drove past in Columbia a few months ago...

Okay, yes. We still have the Confederate flag flying on the statehouse grounds. As a state, South Carolina has hemorrhaged money because of this fact. My theory is that it remains there due to the current business of politics (otherwise known as "the effing election cycle"). Elected officials gauge the concerns of their constituents through increasingly flawed channels. They're hearing more from isolated, infuriated social media and blog commenters than they are from people who interact with the community on a daily basis. South Carolina is a solidly G.O.P. state, so those infuriated comments are coming from the fringes of the fringes of the party's belief system. The majority of the districts represented are rural and lack education, therefore possessing more gasoline and matches for the topic. Frankly (and sadly), many officials aren't prepared to endanger their re-election over a monument when they are worrying about a staggering number of dirt roads that have been on a "to-be-paved" list for 50 years. 

3) *SIGH*

I don't really have much that I want to say about Sen. McConnell. Sorry. I will say that I don't imagine that he's going to  have a very pleasant first semester at a liberal arts school that houses a fantastic writing program in a city that's led by a beloved, forward-thinking mayor.

The South is capable of inflicting indigestion on those of us who choose to live here. Making that choice often means committing to a complicated and volatile relationship with one's own sense of place. This relationship, while flawed, is not unlike those that exist within families. It causes a lot of stress, a lot of anger, self-examination, copious laughter, and more chances to learn about ourselves on a daily basis and become comfortable with that self-knowledge. Writers like Firestone are taking cheap and easy shots when they make such sweeping commentary. Such statements border on being as simple and uncomplicated as they purport us South Carolinians to be.

*The Free Times' Eva Moore posted a fantastic breakdown of that unfortunate city council/homeless vote situation, which can be found here.