By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Racism haunts the South. William Faulkner once famously said, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” A mix of pride and shame has long befuddled Southerners in their efforts to contextualize and reconcile their racist past with modern culture; and based on current politics it seems that we haven’t made much progress on overcoming racism in my lifetime.
I’m Southern born and bred, and grew up being proud of it. I graduated from Dreher High School in Columbia S.C. in 1960, and the next year as a Citadel cadet I proudly marched through Charleston to the Battery to commemorate those cadets who fired the first shots of the Civil War on January 1861 against the Star of the West in its attempt to resupply Fort Sumter.
In 1971 when I returned from active duty, I had a different perspective of racism. In 1978 I was elected to Columbia City Council and promoted changing the city’s all White at-large form of council to a mixed 4-2-1 system that allowed Blacks to be elected to city council for the first time in history. I wasn’t alone. Most White Southerners had also become opponents of racism.
Civil rights laws provide social justice by prohibiting unlawful racial discrimination. While racial preferences are a more direct way to provide benefits to Blacks, they are a reverse form of racial discrimination that can undermine better race relations. In overcoming racism the primary challenge is to avoid racial preferences that undermine better race relations.
Equal opportunity and equal protection under the law are traditional standards of social justice in America. Those libertarian standards of justice conflict with socialist concepts of equality and systemic racism advocated by Black Lives Matter. They represent fundamental conflicts in political ideals that would transform the concept of racism in America.
Unlike civil rights laws, broad claims of systemic racism do not require showing specific acts of racial discrimination to provide compensatory relief; and economic equality has never been a standard of social justice in America. If those claims gain force as political and legal standards of social justice in America, race relations will deteriorate even further.
Race relations in America have worsened significantly since 2016. Columbia has had a Black mayor and the nation has had a Black president, but angry demonstrators now topple statutes of ante-bellum leaders and demand reparations for Blacks based on slavery. To learn from its history of racism, America needs to contextualize it rather than try to eliminate it.
Dr. Martin Luther King set the standard for better race relations in his I have a dream speech in 1963. He said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by their character.” MLK knew that his dream to overcome racism depended on the racial and political reconciliation of Blacks and Whites. Sadly, America has a long way to go to fulfill MLK's dream.
On cadets firing the first shots of the Civil War at the Union ship Star of the West that was seeking to resupply Fort Sumter in January 1861, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_of_the_West.
Caitlin Byrd of The State has addressed the complex issues facing the City of Charleston on how to treat historical monuments and portraits of John C. Calhoun in city venues. See https://www.thestate.com/news/charleston/article250286690.html?ac_cid=DM418530&ac_bid=-64555204
Adam Parker of the Charleston News and Courier has written on the John C. Calhoun monument and other Confederate monuments coming down, and asked, What should we do with them now? See https://www.postandcourier.com/news/local_state_news/confederate-monuments-are-coming-down-what-should-we-do-with-them-now/article_d14beb60-8344-11eb-95ee-d3d1326a4eb2.html.
Noem Cohen of the Washington Post has asserted, Sure, erase the names of history’s racists, but then reminded us, That won’t undo their messes. After listing famous racists in America’s history who made valuable contributions, Cohen argues for contextualizing history’s racists rather than eliminating them from history. He concludes by saying: “Rediscovering racist views held by figures from the past could keep whole university and museum departments toiling around-the-clock for years. But when the historical figures had monumental influence on foundational systems — our buildings, our safety, our public health, in the cases of Johnson, Vollmer and Flexner — erasing their names is hardly sufficient redress. It doesn’t preclude a deeper examination of the systemic legacies, but if the names suddenly vanish, why ask any more questions?” See
Democrats in Congress have cited slavery in America as an uncomfortable truth in making a renewed push for a national commission to examine the impact of slavery and reparations for Blacks as a remedy for systemic racism. “Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) announced the reintroduction of H.R. 40 to create a reparations commission last month that would study the history of slavery, the role federal and state governments played in supporting slavery, and racial discrimination against the descendants of enslaved Africans. “Economic issues are the root cause for many critical issues impacting the African American community today,” Lee said. “Truth and reconciliation about the ‘original sin of American slavery’ is necessary to light the way to the beloved community we all seek. The uncomfortable truth is that the United States owes its position as the most powerful nation in the world to its slave-owning past.”
In an earlier House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on H.R. 40 in 2019 that marked the 400th anniversary of slavery, then-Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) opposed racial reparations saying, “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea,” McConnell told reporters. “We tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a Civil War, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We elected an African American president. I think we are always a work in progress in this country. But no one currently alive was responsible for that, and I don’t think we should be trying to figure how to compensate for that.”
The uncomfortable truth is that America’s racially polarized partisan politics are based on deeply embedded negative attitudes on race across the racial and political spectrum. Restorative justice requires changes in hearts and minds along with the enforcement of civil rights laws. Reparations for Blacks as a remedy for the evils of slavery and systemic racism would only exacerbate racism in America.
Differences on racial reparations and race relations were cited in the Notes to earlier commentaries at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2020/08/musings-on-racism-reparations-racial.html and at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2021/02/counterpoint-danger-of-racial.html.
Congressman James Clyburn (D-SC) has expressed concern over the effect of racial reparations on race relations, while Chales M. Blow has little concern for race relations. Clyburn understands the importance of race relations to racism in America: “I always say the root word for reparations is repair, repair, repair. We need to repair what's going on in this country. These fault lines that have been opened up need to be repaired. ...When you start talking about reparations in terms of monetary issues, then you lose me because nobody can put a value on the loss of education. Nobody can put a value on the loss of a life. Let's repair what's wrong with America and not allow ourselves to spend the next 150 years studying what a monetary value needs to be assigned to the loss of these freedoms and liberties.” See https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2020/06/16/james-clyburn-police-reform-protests. Clyburn also said that “he fears reparations would lead to contested debates about who would be eligible due to the sprawling family trees that have evolved in the generations since slavery was abolished. ...Clyburn said he liked a recent comment by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who said in a CNN town hall last week that he would push to increase the usage of Clyburn’s “10-20-30” policy. That formula, which has already been inserted in some federal policies, calls for directing 10 percent of government funds to counties where 20 percent or more of the population has lived below the poverty line for the past 30 years. ‘To me, that’s a much better way to deal with what reparations is supposed to be about,’ Clyburn said.” See https://www.postandcourier.com/politics/scs-clyburn-pans-reparations-opportunity-zones-as-unable-to-address-racial-inequality/article_3bb2e8ba-3eb3-11e9-b75a-a376c84be23f.html.
By way of contrast with Clyburn, “Charles M. Blow supports reparations, which he describes as ‘reasonable and right.’ For a vast majority of black people’s time in this country, they have been suffering under an oppression operating on all levels of government — local, state and federal. It is absolutely a good idea for America to think about how to make that right, to think about how to repair the damage it did, to think about how to do what is morally just. And the idea that too much time has passed makes a mockery of morality. ...Furthermore, this is not about individual guilt or shame but rather about collective responsibility and redemption. America needs to set its soul right. The paying of reparations isn’t at all an outlandish idea. To the contrary, it’s an exceedingly reasonable proposition. Most of all, it’s right.” See https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/19/opinion/reparations-reasonable-and-right.html. Blow showed contempt for race relations when he wrote: “I have never fully understood what [race relations] meant. It suggests a relationship that swings from harmony to disharmony. But that is not the way race is structured or animated in this country. From the beginning, the racial dynamics in America have been about power, equality and access, or the lack thereof. ...So what are the relations here? It is a linguistic sidestep that avoids the true issue: anti-Black and anti-other white supremacy. It also seems that the way people interpret that question is in direct proportion to the intensity of revolt that’s taking place at a particular time. ...After the rise of Black Lives Matter, satisfaction with race relations suffered a sustained drop.” See https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/08/opinion/racism-united-states.html?searchResultPosition=1.