Why racial suspicions run deeply
BY FRANK WOOTEN
No, voter ID isn’t a white-supremacist plot.
No, the Rev. Joseph A. Darby, in a Jan. 1 guest column on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, didn’t convince me that “the sights and sounds of early Tea Party rallies were chillingly reminiscent of the Klan in its heyday.”
But before joining letter-to-the-editor writers in dumping too heavily on the good man who is the first vice president of the Charleston Branch NAACP, ponder another passage from his New Year’s Day op-ed:
“I’m a graduate of the University of South Carolina, where I was thrown off the campus as a sixth grader with a profane warning from a campus policeman that he didn’t want to see me there again unless I was wearing a green maintenance uniform.”
Having grown up in this state in roughly the same rough era that Darby did, it comes as no surprise to me that a white man in those bad old days would say something that awful — or worse — to a black sixth grader. It’s also no surprise that such cruel ugliness echoes — and sustains suspicions — across the decades.
Having recently read not just Rev. Darby’s Emancipation Day celebration but 1845’s “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written by Himself,” this aging South Carolinian isn’t surprised that some aging black South Carolinians remain wary of white folks’ motives. That wariness perpetuates a counter-wariness by some whites.
And yes, there are still some bigots in our midst — on all sides.
Douglass escaped slavery to become a bright star in the abolitionist movement — and perhaps the most important black American of the 19th century.
From his “Narrative”:
“My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant — before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. ... For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. This is the inevitable result.”
And though our nation’s deadliest war ended slavery on this continent in 1865, the legacy of human bondage inevitably induced a heck of a hangover. Denial of basic rights for black Americans, especially in the South, persisted into my lifetime, fueling residual resentments.
We’ve made remarkable race-relations progress over the last half century. Tomorrow is a national holiday in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s honor — and Inauguration Day for a re-elected black president.
Yet we’re still stuck in a touchy place on race. President Barack Obama won in November despite losing the white vote by 59-39 percent, according to exit polls.
Evidence of white bias against blacks?
How about Obama’s 93-6 percent margin among black voters?
How about not jumping to the rash conclusion that objections to Obama’s big-government follies are rooted in racial prejudice?
How about giving school choice a chance to help close the “achievement gap” between white and black students?
The Charleston Charter School for Math & Science has a black enrollment of about 50 percent — and an impressive academic record. Still, some local black leaders, including Darby, seem reflexively resistant to the school.
Too bad. Education is the most effective means of breaking the poverty cycle.
It’s also the best way to discover the sheer — and liberating — joy of learning.
Back to Douglass’ “Narrative”: “Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point in my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read.”
Mr. Auld then elaborated, frequently uttering a quintessential ethnic slur that won’t be repeated here. He warned that once a slave could read, “it would forever unfit him to be a slave.”
Thus, Douglass wrote: “From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. ... Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.”
So whether black, white or otherwise, bring high hope to the fixed purpose of elevating educational achievement for all.
Try, too, to understand where those on the other side of the racial divide are coming from — and where they want to go.
Frank Wooten is assistant editor of The Post and Courier. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.