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Time to Deal With the Elephant in South Carolina's Room

Removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds doesn't confront something lurking in rooms across South Carolina for generations -- the elephant of racial division.
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CHARLESTON, S.C., Aug. 5, 2015 | Removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds doesn't confront something lurking in rooms across South Carolina for generations -- the elephant of racial division.

So that made us wonder -- how can the state move forward to reconcile and heal generations of slights, violence, fear, prejudice and deaths? What can be done to level the playing field, to thwart dreams lost because of skin color or poverty?

"Using any measure, the prospects of success for an affluent white baby born today in South Carolina are significantly higher than those of a baby whose skin color is not white and whose parents are poor," says Steve Skardon, head of the Palmetto Project. "The causes of this discrepancy have little to do with white children working harder than others, parents being better providers or growing up in a culture with stronger or better values. In many ways, these differences are systemic, and those in charge of the system are blind to their consequences."

Ideas from a cross-section of leaders on how to foster healing range from improving schools and expanding Medicaid access for poor South Carolinians to engaging voters and promoting more economic development in counties with large populations of people of color. But just about everyone agrees we need to communicate better.

"Now that we have demonstrated that we can all talk to each other and politics can be put aside, the best thing we can all do is engage in meaningful, factual conversations about how we can move other issues that have caused a divide in our communities," observed Sue Berkowitz, director of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center.

Such tough, systematic conversations have been avoided for generations, says Columbia filmmaker Bud Ferillo: "We were all born into a segregated, alienated society but we do not have to die in one."

An Upstate conservative noted the flag could no longer be an excuse and would force citizens to deal with unpleasant truths, such as black-on-black crime. "One of the reasons I'm glad it's down is that the flag was used to stop unpleasant conversations," he said.

The United Way of South Carolina's Tim Ervolina added: "The truth needs to be spoken in love, in the realization that most Southerners never saw themselves as complicit in a horrible crime against humanity [the Civil War] -- and they have spent a century and half denying it. We cannot heal this nation without love and forgiveness. Nor can we heal it without the truth."

Other ideas:

Be kinder. Charleston Realtor Charles Smith suggests something that doesn't cost a dime or require a public policy change. "When you pass within a few feet of someone who is obviously different than you are, be intentional about looking the person straight in the face, smiling and saying hello," he said. "Many of us grew up in the South during a time when white people were taught not to acknowledge black people and black people were taught not to look a white person in the face."

Involve churches, colleges. One South Carolina mayor suggested churches and colleges embrace reconciliation as an ongoing task. "I hope that churches will meet and discuss how we can apply Christ's teaching in our daily lives--like the Emanuel [AME Church] family."

Diversify leadership. Novelist Andra Watkins of Charleston noted generations of patriarchal state leadership where only one woman serves in the Senate. "I hope to see more women elected to South Carolina offices and appointed to South Carolina boards and commissions."

Come to terms with history. Clemson economist Holley Ulbrich said the history of all South Carolinians should be preserved, not just for white males. "Perhaps we can then move on to dealing with one important legacy of racism, which is not wanting to do anything that benefits 'them' (i.e., African-Americans). That attitude has been a serious obstacle to improving the quality of life in South Carolina for whites and blacks in everything from high incarceration rates for African Americans to poor schools in predominantly minority school districts to refusing Medicaid expansion."

South Carolinians need to break down generational barriers. As I tell my daughters, we've all got red blood running through our veins.

Andy Brack is editor and publisher of Statehouse Report, a weekly forecast of state policy and politics. He can be reached at: brack@statehousereport.com.

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