Most South Carolinians don’t know a lot of out-of-the-closet, vociferous racists. They’re probably around, just like they have been since two people who didn’t look like each other first met. But in our society — here and in other states — they generally live on the fringes.
A hundred years ago, racism was institutionalized in the South with Jim Crow laws and separate but equal schools. That changed after World War II as people marched to embrace civil rights. And while governments deinstitutionalized racism in accommodations, schools and meeting places, people’s attitudes took longer. The overt racism of the past became a more hidden, covert prejudice found today across the nation in persnickety comments, sharp glances, rolled-up windows at stoplights.
But what I know, today, is that most people in the South get along, regardless of skin color. People might have different economic circumstances. They might go to different churches. They might live in different neighborhoods. They might have different cultural traditions. But they generally are accepting and not hung up on race. White, brown, black people attend the same schools, restaurants, football games, libraries, grocery stores, malls, beaches, airports and so on.
I also know that people from outside the South have a hard time believing any of this, particularly with the rebel flag flapping in the wind outside the Statehouse in Columbia. Or when they see news of a white gunman going into a place of worship and shooting nine people at a prayer meeting. Or when a white cop uses a stun gun and then a pistol on an unarmed black man stopped for a traffic violation.
Folks, there is evil in the world. There’s no two ways about it. It’s in South Carolina. It’s in Oregon. Good people must do what they can to thwart it. Otherwise, we’ll have more shootings like the one in Charleston. Or Newtown. Or Littleton. Or Aurora.
There are things we can do to combat this evil. It would help, for example, if we stopped fueling hate with bitterness, acrimony, divisiveness and partisanship in our political and community talk.
Quite frankly, America — not just South Carolina — needs to blast the closed door of race off its hinges and confront it vigorously. We need active community discussions, involvement and engagement over a long period to heal and deal with the issue. We need, as Columbia strategist Charles Weathers says, to have “courageous conversations.” Let’s target hate and racism just as we target lung cancer or some other dreaded disease — with education and resources.
It also wouldn’t hurt if symbols of hate were not prominently displayed, such as the Confederate flag on the Statehouse grounds. Yes, the flag represents heritage to some. But a far greater number find it to be a symbol of hate. If you want your flag, fine. Put it on your wall. Find it in a museum. But don’t publicly display it on state-owned land.
We also could do more to control the pervasiveness of handguns. There are more than 50 million in the United States. As a state, do we really need to make it easier for people to carry concealed weapons — without a permit, as a current House bill proposes — or do we need to make it tougher? For the record, I am not suggesting that people give up the right to own handguns. What I’m suggesting is more controls — criminal background checks, mental stability checks, longer waiting periods, controls on gun shows.
I can already hear the gun lobby’s arguments: Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. But those who want guns controlled like in every other advanced country find this ludicrous. Easy access to guns makes it more likely someone who is upset or mentally ill will turn to one and use it. Just look at our state’s high rate of domestic violence. Our legislature made a good start this year to try curb guns in the hands of abusers, but it’s only a beginning.
What happened in Charleston Wednesday night does not reflect the core of South Carolina. But we’ve got to prove it by working diligently to confront hate and eradicate the roots of racism so this kind of senseless tragedy never happens again.