Toxic layers of bigotry
The political mantra this year is "change. " But South Carolina, where the Confederate flag still flies on the grounds of the state Capitol...
COLUMBIA, S.C. — 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 goodwill 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 GOP. The black people vote next Saturday."
They still honor Benjamin Tillman down here, which is very much like honoring a malignant tumor. Astatue 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 prob-lematic in a state so warped by its past that it can continue to officially admire a figure like Tillman.
The host of the 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 could hardly be otherwise.
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.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., 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 Obama is black.
The result has been a churning of the issue of race to no constructive effect, even during Monday 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 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.
Bob Herbert is a regular columnist for The New York Times.
2008, New York Times News Service