Institutional Racism, Part II

In my last piece, I discussed the impact of institutional racism, subtle forms of this evil that get overlooked and excused, because they seem to be less nefarious or even nonexistent.

In a thoughtful gesture, the New York Times provided a useful case study. A recent article highlighted just how bad a past year this has been for South Carolina. When Joel Sawyer, a former spokesman for Governor Mark Sanford, and now a public relations exec, was asked when the last time his state had provided so many headlines, he replied, "I don't know. Secession?" It was an extremely apt answer, one that I will return to.

Now, in all fairness, some of the state's worst doozies had nothing to do with race. Governor Mark Sanford provided the dooziest of them all, when he totally rejected his leadership responsibilities to visit a mistress in Argentina. Instead, he claimed to be "hiking the Appalachian trail", a line that has become a euphemism for illicit sex.

But some of the other headlines were a lot more political, and a lot more racial. Topping the list was Congressman Joe Wilson yelling at our president, "You lie". There was also a local Republican who compared Michelle Obama to a gorilla.

The media and politicians from all parties have dismissed these incidents as strange manifestations of an eccentric state. Jon Stewart cracked, "Thank you, South Carolina," for making his job so much easier. South Carolina Democrat and former chair of his national party Donald Fowler remarked that the state was "an accentuated microcosm of the hostile, resentful attitude." And Mr. Sawyer added that "there's clearly something in the genetic makeup of South Carolina that gives us a propensity to buck authority." Just a cultural tic the state has developed. Nothing to do with race.

Yet here's another piece of the state's culture that they have not discussed. Of the original thirteen colonies, South Carolina became the first to have an African-American majority population, as early as 1720. This in an era of sparse settlement, when fear of actual and imagined threats could all be quite real for isolated--and now outnumbered-- farmers. Even worse, South Carolina experienced the first of the great slave revolts, the Stono Rebellion of 1739. As a result, a deep ingrained concern about the presence of so many forced immigrants from Africa also became part of the colony's psyche, much more so than in any of the other colonies, where the numbers weren't so extreme.

As a result, the colony led the way in passing restrictive legislation against slaves. That unique legal situation may also be the basis for local citizens developing a tendency to "buck" outsiders, as Sawyer put it, a concern that officials from other places--even the national authorities--might force them to change their ways regarding the slave population that uniquely surrounded them. Race, in other words, has been a fundamental trauma for South Carolina from its earliest days, its most basic fear.

To return to Joel Sawyer's comment, yes, South Carolina was the leading state demanding secession in 1861, to the point that they were referred to back then as the "fire-eaters". In other words, extreme positions are, in fact, part of the state's heritage and history. And they all seem to involve racial issues.

Yet according to conservative commentators, secession was about state's rights, and race had nothing to do with the state's vehemence in upholding slavery, to the point of breaking with the union and declaring war on the United States' flag.

Just like right now, when the state's unprecedented outbursts taking place on a black president's watch has nothing to do with race.