2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
Speaking Truth to Power!

The Blight That Is Still With Us


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Race still matters in this country. Is that why we try so hard to avoid
talking about it? Here's an op-ed piece that calls for the question...

The political mantra this year is “change.” But South Carolina, where the
Confederate flag still flies on the grounds of the State Capitol, is a
disturbing example of how difficult it is for people of good will to
dispose of the toxic layers of bigotry that have accumulated over several
long centuries.

On Saturday, in a cold, steady rain, voters turned out for the Republican
primary. Nearly all of them — close to 100 percent — were white. At a
dinner here Saturday night, I was reminded ruefully by one of the guests:
“It used to be the Democratic Party that was the white man’s party in South
Carolina. Now it’s the G.O.P. The black people vote next Saturday.”

They still honor Benjamin Tillman down here, which is very much like
honoring a malignant tumor. A statue of Tillman, who was known as Pitchfork
Ben, is on prominent display outside the statehouse.

Tillman served as governor and U.S. senator in the late 19th and early 20th
centuries. A mortal enemy of black people, he bragged that he and his
followers had disenfranchised “as many as we could,” and he publicly
defended the murder of blacks.

In a speech on the Senate floor, he declared:

“We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern
white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be the equal of
the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our
wives and daughters without lynching him.”

Real change is more than problematic in a state so warped by its past that
it can continue to officially admire a figure like Tillman.

The host of a dinner party I attended was Bud Ferillo, a white public
relations executive who produced and directed a documentary called
“Corridor of Shame” to call attention to the terrible neglect of rural
schools in South Carolina.

If you were to walk into some of those schools — which are spread along a
crescent-shaped corridor on either side of Interstate 95 from the southern
edge of North Carolina to the northern edge of Georgia — you might forget
that you were in the United States.

A former South Carolina commerce secretary, Charles Way, talks in the film
about the time his car broke down near one of these schools and he went
inside to use a phone.

“I just couldn’t really believe my eyes,” he said. “It was the most
deplorable building condition that I’ve ever seen in my life. How the hell
somebody could teach in an environment like that is really just beyond me.”

Among many other problems, ancient plumbing has resulted in raw sewage
backing up into some schools, bringing in vermin and unbearable odors. The
first school profiled in “Corridor of Shame” was built in 1896.

Some 700,000 students attend these rural schools, and they are being left
behind in droves. One principal complained about nonfiction books in the
school library that dated back to the 1940s and ’50s, including a volume
that promised “one day man will land on the moon.”

The rural schools in South Carolina are symptoms of a much wider problem.
Only about 50 percent of the state’s children graduate from high school.

There has been a spasm of political campaigning here, but that will soon
end. In presidential elections, South Carolina is reliably Republican. A
state with Pitchfork Ben standing guard at the Capitol hardly could be

The Democrats are here this week fighting over the black vote. It’s ironic
that in a state so racially polarized, there is so little serious
discussion among the candidates of the race issue.

Senator Barack Obama, with his message of unity and healing (and not
wanting to be seen solely as a black candidate), has tried to avoid
addressing the issue of race head-on. Bill and Hillary Clinton have worked
hard at turning that posture into a negative, aggressively courting the
black vote, while at the same time spotlighting (directly and through
surrogates) the fact that Mr. Obama is black.

The result has been a churning of the issue of race to no constructive
effect, even during last night’s debate sponsored by the Congressional
Black Caucus Institute.

This was probably inevitable. In South Carolina the Confederate flag is
flying right out there in the open and Pitchfork Ben is on display for all
to see. But in most other places, the hostility to blacks remains on the
down-low. No one wants to deal with it.

Despite big and important advances over the past several decades, including
Senator Obama’s crossover campaign, racism remains alive and well in much
of the country. And yet no one — not Bill Clinton, the man touted
(absurdly) as the first black president; or Hillary Clinton, who’s running
for president; or Barack Obama, the first black person with a real shot at
the White House — is willing to talk honestly and openly about it.


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