‘The Nation’ on politics and race in South Carolina

My headline might make you cringe a bit, but the piece isn’t bad. It doesn’t really say anything about us that I haven’t said, or that you don’t already know.

After all, we are the state that seceded first, and some of us would do it again with just a modest amount of encouragement.

It’s tone-deaf in a couple of spots, though. For instance, it equates Strom Thurmond, the segregationist, with Ben Tillman, the advocate of lynching. Most of us can see the gradations of wrongness there rather clearly. And speaking of Thurmond — the writer either doesn’t know or has forgotten that the senator cleaned up his act in the last few decades of his career. In other words, he spent far more years in the Senate NOT being a segregationist than most people spend in the Senate.

That leads to confusion. After noting approvingly that Paul Thurmond says a lot of enlightened things — which he does; he’s a fine young man — the writer observes,

I leave Thurmond’s office wondering whether what I’ve just heard can be real. He seemed like a sincere man, but he, too, was eager to get beyond race. “My generation has not been taught to hate people based on the color of their skin,” the son of South Carolina’s most notorious segregationist told me.

Yet someone taught Dylann Roof and Michael Slager, the cop who shot Walter Scott in the back. The Confederate flag may finally be on its way to a museum, but the attitude of racial arrogance that the flag represented is very far from being a mere artifact. That’s a fundamental truth of our national life—though not one that’s easy to see from Iowa or New Hampshire. Perhaps South Carolina’s role in our politics is to remind us of all those parallel universes—not just Republican and Democratic, or rich and poor, but yes, still black and white—we work so hard to ignore. We always have a choice. We can carry on pretending that it’s still morning in America, that we’re all in this together. Or we can take a good hard look in the mirror.

Yep, Strom was a notorious segregationist, before he wasn’t. (Oh, and do I think it’s because he had some road-to-Damascus transformation, like Tom Turnipseed, the opponent of integration who did a 180 to become possibly the most ardent, sincerest progressive in South Carolina? No. The world changed, and Thurmond adapted. Early in his career, it was helpful to be a segregationist, so he was one. Later it was not, so he wasn’t. But it’s still true that he wasn’t.)

And the fact that Dylann Roof is a racist does in no way demonstrates that Paul Thurmond is lying when he says he wasn’t brought up that way. Possibly, Dylann Roof wasn’t brought up that way, either. I have my doubts about the old saw that children have to be taught to hate. I strongly suspect that people are capable of getting there on their own. Anyway, almost no one Paul Thurmond’s age was brought up that way, although his father certainly was. We live in subtler, politer times.

But there is no doubt that, decades after the Southern Strategy transferred the Solid South from the Democrats to the Republicans, race is always, always on the table. The article gets that right. It just misses some of the nuances…

4 thoughts on “‘The Nation’ on politics and race in South Carolina

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Oh, and was Thurmond “South Carolina’s MOST notorious segregationist?” He may be that technically, in the sense that he’s the best known, to latter generations.

    But the worst, which “most notorious” may imply? Again, I refer you to Tillman, Ben. Or Cole Blease, for that matter…

    Again, nuances…

  2. Lynn Teague

    If they’re actually looking for someone who perfected using the racial divide in a way that did the most harm to the nation at large, Lee Atwater should have some kind of seat at the table. Overall I think he did considerably more harm than Strom Thurmond.

    1. Harry Harris

      Yeah, but Lee and his mentor, Harry Dent, both repented. Too bad the damage to the state’s and nation’s political climate couldn’t be undone. A lot of personal apology and mea culpa is certainly a good starting point, but the power of alienation and polarization, once released, is hard to break. Each of us could likely use a good apology tour late in our careers, but do we make the sacrifices necessary to help bend the curve back toward where it should be.

      In a real sense, too often we throw around poorly defined or understood terms like “racist,” “segregationist,” “prejudiced.” We all have combinations of racial feelings, thoughts, and attitudes that we would do well to acknowledge and deal with, not deny and suffer from. “Truth and Reconciliation,” a commitment we should all learn from the Mandela legacy, provides a good starting point – but without long-term follow-through even that falls way short of where we should be. Mandela said in different words that the more he grew and learned the less important being part of any group became to him.

  3. JesseS

    “@BradWarthen ‘Strom was a notorious segregationist, before he wasn’t.’ http://goo.gl/jnuEEj

    Racists just love defending racists.”

    I bet I could tweet that and get a couple hundred followers.

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