When we saw Sean Hannity playing clips from the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s inflammatory sermons over and over again one night on Fox News, we thought, “This isn’t going to play well in the sticks.” As it turns out, that ol’ ditty didn’t play so well anywhere. White Americans from red states and blue states were shocked to hear Wright angrily inveigh against America, saying things like, “I don’t say God Bless America! God damn America.” For the hicks and hayseeds of America’s heartland and Republican primaries, Senator Barack Hussein Obama is already on thin ice when it comes to love of patria. Just look at his name, and you’ll understand why.
The existence of these inflammatory sermons was portrayed as a news-event in itself, but for many Americans the real news should have been this: black people are not happy with America the way you’re happy with America. Their communities are beset by crippling poverty, high STI and AIDS infection rates, a 70% out-of-wedlock birth rate, a veritable epidemic of crime, and a disproportionate share of guilty verdicts and prison time. On top of this, they carry the weight of a societal racism as intense as it is multifarious: casual racism versus institutional racism, the obnoxious racism of the confirmed bigot versus the unspoken racism of the merely unreflective, and the racism of the demeaning cultural image versus the racism of internalized degradation.
In addition, the black community has been shaped by the subtle but powerful economic consequences of historical racism. For instance, blacks have a lower rate of home ownership, and thus less inheritable equity, as a direct result of the officially racist policy of the Federal Housing Administration. Other consequences of federal policy, even unintended ones, have been no less disastrous: the attempts at affordable housing pursued by the office of Housing and Urban Development – the so-called “projects” – ended up metamorphosing into utopias of criminality and sinkholes of poverty.
Finally, in the most fundamental analysis, black people and white people have not had the same experience – historical or contemporary – with America. In the minds of the majority of whites, their current prosperity is the historical outcome of the pluck and struggle of their immigrant ancestors. After the civil-rights victories of the 1960s, blacks should have replicated the pattern established by other immigrant groups, but they did not. Now, many whites think, it is they who are the victims of programs like affirmative action, and they are soaked in taxes to pay for other programs like welfare and Medicaid. Black people are “always complaining” and are unable to “just get over it.”
Blacks, on the other hand, were ripped from the womb of Africa and sold into slavery on the death-fields of the American South. Even after this barbaric institution was abolished, they were subjected to legalized segregation, a regime of second-class citizenry, the nullification of their civil and political rights, the ruthless thwarting of all social and economic aspirations, and over a century of terror at the hands of white extremists. And all of this doesn’t even begin to get at the existential and psychological consequences of being told you’re a worthless, inferior, and even subhuman creature for hundreds of years. “The problem with black people, man, why they got such a chip on their shoulder.”
Wright’s words, as well as the anger, frustration, and even hatred to which they gave explosive vent, came as a rude awakening to a white America whose conception of black people, from Song of the South (1947) to the present, has been nothing but a fantasy fabricated for its own edification and a theodicy for its past misdeeds. Accordingly, anything which smacks of variance with this theodicy, anything which gives the lie to it, calls down upon itself a storm of extreme antipathy. Many people were freaked out to discover that America’s melting pot seethed with rage. Comment-posters on foxnews.com went nuts, declaring that black people should be happy we went to the trouble of dragging them in chains to the New World on the death-voyage that was the Middle Passage, because they ended up in America, where a Big Mac goes for $3.10 and the kids are alright. What could Senator Obama do but send the crazy Rev back to Africa?
Well, he did a very brave thing instead. He took that stage in Philadelphia, and he spoke his heart out. He refused to abandon the man who, in a very literal sense, saved his soul, the man who won him for Christ, the man whom, by abandoning, he would have been delivering into the hands of the Romans of political expediency. Yet neither did he endorse the anger and despair which bubbles up from the nadir of American history, the noxious residue of a heritage of unimaginable suffering, oppression, body-maiming and soul-killing which white people, if we are truly honest with ourselves, our history, and our country, dare not judge, but instead must seek to understand. It was a heroic speech of a piece with the American tradition of grand oratory which rises above historical particulars in order to seize and enact a vision – if only a vision – of an America spawned by the best part of ourselves.
Conservatives were less than placated. A storm of cheeping criticism and petty complaint touched down across the conservative blogosphere. He threw his grandmother under a bus, some complained, wantonly misrepresenting that part of his speech. How dare Obama say America is not a paradise? How dare he bring up race when everyone knows that these problems were solved in the 1960s for all time? Theodicy is such a fragile thing. Obama, hissed and suppurated Rush Limbaugh into his microphone, was no longer running for commander-in-chief, but “racial healer-in-chief.” Among all the criticism for the Senator who “wouldn’t apologize,” there came one exceptionally smug piece by Kathleen Parker (no relation to Hal), a member of the Washington Post Writers Group, which appeared in the National Review Online. On a visit to its campus for an unrelated reason, Kathleen Parker was wowed by the racial paradise that is Charleston Collegiate School. She swooned at its 33-acre campus full of “children of all ethnicities, religions, and abilities” who “work and play together.” The words of Rev. Wright, she reflects, seem “alien and hostile” in this environment. Pointing to the school’s enrollment of 24% minority students, the largest percentage among private schools in the Charleston metropolitan area, she declares that Wright’s “sometimes hate-filled rhetoric is weirdly out of sync with this quiet corner of the Old South, where the ancestors of the school’s African-Americans worked as slaves, perhaps upon these very fields.”
The fact is that South Carolina – and even Charleston Collegiate – is not the beacon of racial progress in which Kathleen Parker wants and needs so desperately to believe. The reality of race and private schooling in the South vitiates Charleston Collegiate as the overwhelming exception and lonely counter-example it is. Private schools in the South, far from the experimental melting-pots and utopias of racial harmony and undiluted pedagogy Kathleen Parker and her conservative cohorts envision, in fact exist as enclaves for privileged white students who have escaped the turmoil and failure of the public school system. Black students are left to inherit the remnants of this public school system. They are separate, but far from equal.
South Carolina’s public schools are ranked 49th in the country. It was one of the last states to desegregate them. “We’ve run out of courts, and we’ve run out of time, and we adjust to new circumstances” declared Governor George McNair, a good man who knew change was coming and did his best to make it peaceable. Some thought differently. When a bus of black elementary school children pulled up to a school in Lamar, it was set upon by an angry mob of white people. They went to work, “smashing the bus windows with ax handles, bricks, heavy chains and sharpened screwdrivers.” A contemporary account of the attack reads, “They repeatedly tried to get at the youngsters who were cowering inside. The student driver of one bus, Henry Alford, 18, struggled to hold the door closed. ‘Most of the kids were girls, and they were scared and crying,’ Alford said. ‘The boys made the girls get down on the floor and the boys stood in a circle around them to protect them from the glass.’”
These quotations came from the March 16, 1970 issue of TIME magazine. Yes, 1970. Two years earlier a group of black students from South Carolina State University had gathered in protest outside a segregated bowling alley. One thing led to another, and the state police let loose a hail of bullets, injuring 27 people and killing three. Their names were Samuel Hammond, Delano Middleton, and Henry Smith, and Feb. 8, 1968 is known as the infamous date of the “Orangeburg Massacre.”
As far as the progress of civil rights in South Carolina is concerned, maybe Kathleen Parker should look beyond Charleston Collegiate to the town of Summerton, South Carolina, located in sleepy Clarendon County. In 1952 Summerton was the site of an important legal challenge to school segregation, Briggs v. Eliot, one of five cases eventually combined into the historic Brown v. Board of Education. This case resulted in the eventual desegregation of all public schools across America. Meanwhile, what happened in Summerton? Fast-forward fifty years – past local church-burnings and assassination-attempts – and the vast majority of Summerton’s white students attend a private school called Clarendon Hall. The local public school, Scott Branch High School, has a 95% black enrollment although blacks only make up 40% of the population. It’s also one of the worst high schools in the state.
Although the realities of few places are as stark as those of Summerton, the pattern of Summerton is the pattern of South Carolina. While South Carolina has a large number of private schools, these schools are overwhelmingly patronized by the white families able to afford them as well as socially and culturally inclined to do so. This leaves black students to languish in disproportionate numbers in the public schools which are 49th in the country. Of course everyone has the right to determine the quality and nature of their children’s education. There’s nothing wrong with establishing, funding, or attending private schools. Indeed, it’s arguably the single most important exercise of freedom one can make. However, it is misleading to point to private schools, especially private schools in the South, as progressive symbols of the integration of black and white, given the role they play in perpetuating a system of de facto segregation.
Our names are Hal Parker and Michael E. Van Landingham. We’re both from South Carolina. We come from different backgrounds and different parts of the state, but we both recognize the serious problems which confront it. We were both irritated to read Kathleen Parker so blithely paper over these problems in service of the National Review’s transparent and dishonest agenda of vilifying Barack Obama at any cost for any reason. South Carolina is a real place with real problems which require real solution, not Panglossian rationalization and shot-from-the-hip platitudes about “old wounds” and school vouchers. We refuse to see our state prostituted in the service of ignorance and villainy.
My name is Michael E. Van Landingham. My family has been in South Carolina since 1690, on both sides. At times, we owned slaves, but usually we were too poor to afford any. (Certainly, there was no moral objection to the practice.) Six of my relatives fought in the Civil War for the Confederacy (none owned slaves at that point), and at least two were killed in action. My parents moved to Charleston in the 1970s, and I grew up in a middle class professional household in a neighborhood where we were the only white family with one exception. I went to a public magnet school for elementary and middle school before going North for boarding school.
My best friend’s little brother “James” (not a real name) went to Charleston Collegiate for high school from 2002-2006. When I asked him about the “racial harmony” Kathleen Parker cites, he just laughed.
“There used to be a bunch of rednecks who wore camouflage and drove in jacked-up trucks,” James said. “In the 2004-2005 school year there was a fight between a white and black kid and there were some racial slurs,” James explained, “and they were both expelled.”
“There weren’t that many black kids though. There was one black kid and one Hispanic kid in my class of 11 people, and the same for the class below me. I think the sophomore class when I was a senior had two Hispanics and one black kid.”
James notes that boasting a 24% minority enrollment is a ruse when you consider the total student population is less than 250 students. “My class was 20% minority—there were 2. That’s not diverse.”
“I mean, if you include all the Hispanic, Asian, and Indian kids, I suppose you’d get 24%, but that’s only 60 kids. Out of that I bet there’s like 20 black kids.”
But in Charleston County, 35% of all residents are black. By twisting statistics and painting a bucolic picture of a 33-acre campus on a sea-island filled with Spanish moss-covered oaks, she makes a school that is non-representative of the actual population look diverse.
Moreover, Charleston Collegiate is far from the only private school serving Charleston. Other local private schools are much more expensive – over $10,000 a year, some as high as $20,000. They have existed since the eighteenth century in some cases, and the kids are all modern Southern gentry. Polo shirts, GMC Tahoes, shorts, and sunglasses for the boys, and pastel Lily Pulitzer for the girls. It’s like Cottage, basically. The educations they receive are not much better than the good suburban high schools, but they are miles ahead of the Charleston peninsula’s schools. This area has the most impressive homes and baronial estates, but it has the worst public education.
However, if Kathleen Parker is looking for a model of “racial harmony,” maybe she should examine the magnet school I attended, Buist Academy. Buist is the best public elementary school in the state of South Carolina, and it drew on all segments of the population because it had a requirement that the racial percentages of the student body reflect those of the county. I went to school with a mirror of my county, and though the classes were larger, we all learned. My experience teaches me that programs which actively address the South’s racial divide are better than those that dissimulate it. Unfortunately, Buist itself has recently become lily white. A group of wealthy parents sued the school to end the policy. They have the resources to game the system.
My school years made it painfully clear how stratified the South is. I got a Confederate flag from a friend for my going away party. When I worked at McDonald’s on James Island, SC, it was managed by whites, and all the employees were black except for three white high school students. The manager was racist although he would never see himself that way. Nor was the clientele much better. When a black cashier told a white customer that their food was not ready, it was the cashier’s fault. When I told them the same thing, they assumed it was the black kitchen staff’s fault. Noticing this, the manager moved all the whites to register duty. In addition, my father runs a low-income tax clinic, and before that he worked for the same low-income law firm as a family lawyer. An easy supermajority of his clients are black.
My name is Hal Parker. I grew up at the opposite end of the state from Michael in a city called Greenville. Black people make up over a third of the population in Greenville, S.C., but as a child I was never aware of this demographic because my upbringing took place in an almost immaculate universe of other white people. At the private school I attended, there were only a couple of black students at most out of an enrollment of nearly a thousand. Although the school was officially Episcopalian, there were many more Jewish students than black students.
Similarly, my neighborhood, Chanticleer, was almost exclusively white. A few miles away existed another neighborhood – a much poorer neighborhood – overwhelmingly populated by black people. Whereas this neighborhood is a haphazard grid of poorly maintained streets linked up with major roads according to the convenience of those that speed through it on their way to other destinations, Chanticleer is a concentric pattern of sinuous streets which wend their way, in leisure and shade, past beautiful homes and children at play, to terminal cul-de-sacs. Like some fortress out of Vauban, Chanticleer forms an intricate graph which can only be pierced at two access-points serving the entire neighborhood. A guard-house, albeit wholly decorative, fronts my street.
If the private school and neighborhood lacked for people who weren’t white, this disparity was decisively rectified by the country club where I spent many afternoons as a child. Just kidding. Although there must have been at least a couple of black families who belonged to it, they were few and far between, just like my neighborhood and school.
Did the club apply racist criteria in its admission of members? I can assert with complete confidence that it did not. Active racism would have been unconscionable in that milieu. Likewise, my school was scrupulously politically correct in the best tradition of tasteful mainstream Protestantism. Almost every other book we read in middle school featured a black child as its protagonist. During the entire period of my childhood, I never witnessed a single incident or expression of racism on the part of my peers or those adults in whose keep we were placed. Indeed, it has been my experience that outright racism, at least in the South, is a class thing. When I worked in the construction industry one summer, I heard the n-word almost every day, but at home, at school, and at the club, anything which sounded remotely prejudiced would have met with formal disapprobation and the most severe sanctions. The school, like the neighborhood and country club, was a place whose values, at least on the surface, were tolerance and enlightenment.
However, it was only a tolerance in the abstract and an enlightenment which began and ended on the speculative level. Nothing could change the fact that we existed in an insular environment of de facto segregation. It doesn’t matter how many slave narratives you read in middle school if everyone in middle school is exactly like you. Our benevolence, our tolerance, our cosmopolitan outlook – all of it was predicated on the absence of actual black people. We were true believers in a world without history, with liberty and justice for all. But freedom from the taint of prejudice was a privilege like any other. Likewise, empathy which doesn’t translate into the material politics of change isn’t worth the song it pantomimes.
The country club doesn’t exclude by race. It excludes by things which exclude by race – your family, your church, your friends, your alma mater, your job, your liquidity on hand, the people you know, the people you don’t, your personality, the unconscious associations of your middle name, the way you pronounce words and the way you tell a joke. It’s like Cottage, basically. When the regime of segregation became impossible to enforce by legal means, a successor regime of private schools, homeowner associations, and similar institutions went into action – each of them innocuous en détail, but deleterious en masse. It is no longer a regime of absolute segregation, but the exceptions and lucky ones only exonerate the injustice of the whole.
Furthermore, the move from de jure segregation to de facto segregation altered the portrait of the whole from the sinister design of a conspiracy of bigots to a happy accident of market forces and individual liberties. Even prejudice itself has dropped out of the system, at least at the upper levels. Economic tendencies and unconscious biases do the work once done by fire hoses and German shepherds. Racism is almost impossible to discern except in the aggregate. In other words, the system may be racist even if the individuals who run it certainly aren’t. If bigotry is a class-marker in the South, then it is only so because the reification of racist ideology has enabled its relegation to the category of poor taste.
So this has been our experience of South Carolina. This is the thing we wanted to tell you. Although his disguises are many and he walks with a limp nowadays, racism is alive and well in our state, in the South, and everywhere. Kathleen Parker’s coverage of Charleston Collegiate – part of a broad conservative attack upon the person and integrity of Barack Obama in the aftermath of the Philadelphia speech – misrepresents South Carolina and turns a blind eye on its problems.
When called to account for the inflammatory words and even hateful message of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama rejected the hate but recognized as legitimate the pain from which it sprang. The sorry gamut of conservative responses to his speech – which range from the merely petty to the literally outrageous – represents a failure of empathy of their part, a failure sustained by their myopic faith in the unconditional justness and absolute neutrality of the present. They will go to any length to avoid admitting that all is not well, that the disposition of the present owes at least something to the crimes of the past, and that America is not the unsullied font of prosperity and liberty she pretends to be, but instead that things, terrible and unforgivable and carrying the black mark of eternal infamy, have been done in her name.