Maybe it’s the fact that I’m sitting in my hotel room, thirty miles up the interstate from Orangeburg, with Johnny Cash on the headphones singing populist murderer’s tunes. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been zigzagging around my native South these past six weeks, taking the political temperature of grassroots Democrats. (In sum, it’s 100 degrees and climbing fast, even in the most “Republican” parts of Dixie.) But as I sit here sipping the obligatory late-night bourbon and trying to make sense of what I saw at South Carolina State tonight, what I can’t get over has very little to do with what I actually heard and saw. It has everything to do with what the lily-livered, consultant-scripted Democratic Gang of Eight–OK, Gang of Six, as Mike Gravel has clearly never met a consultant, bless his heart, and poor dear Dennis has never been able to afford one–could not muster the guts to say.
There was nary a syllable uttered about race. This is not only shocking at a debate set in a state, and a region–not to mention a country–whose politics and culture and economic caste system, whose everything, has been defined and twisted and perverted by the artificial line between “black” and “white” for its entire history. It’s not only shocking in the midst of a war that resembles Vietnam not only in its sensational waste of human life but in its undeniable quality of being a rich people’s war and a poor–and disproportionately black and Hispanic–people’s fight. It’s even more shocking because these candidates were standing directly across from the site of one of the most infamous civil rights atrocities of the late 1960s, the Orangeburg massacre, when South Carolina Highway Patrol officers opened up on black students protesting a segregated bowling alley right here at South Carolina State and shot three of them dead while wounding twenty-seven more. The story was ignored then, though every officer was unjustly acquitted, and now it has been ignored again–even in the wake of another school shooting that did come up in the debate. But this is a part of the country where African-Americans fought bravely and staunchly and sometimes violently to make the Civil Rights Act a practical reality. And it’s a place where the economic divide that continues to widen is largely–as we saw so vividly in New Orleans, and can just as easily see in Chicago and Los Angeles and New York City–a product of the quieter, subtler, but no less overwhelming white privilege that still prevails not only in South Carolina but in every crevice and corner of this numb and blind country.
Really, “shocking” is too mild a word. Failing to decry the racial and economic divide, on this historically black campus, in front of folks who can’t afford to ignore it, whose history has been written in the very blood of race hate, is downright shameful. The shame extends to all eight candidates. And to all who cheer them on and fail to demand that they not blithely ignore the hideous plank in this nation’s collective eye.
Barack Obama had his chance, of course, with the softball moderator Brian Williams threw him about the Confederate flag. All Obama managed was a dispassionate remark about putting the rebel flag in a museum for good. Not exactly fightin’ words, and the opportunity to expound on what the flag means, and on the far more important substance beyond that divisive symbol, was punted completely. The others had their chances, too, when they were talking about Iraq and talking about the economy and talking about healthcare and failing to talk–as our theme repeats itself–about the American atrocities laid bare in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Race runs through every goddamned bit of it, swift and sure as poison. The Democrats’ silence about it, particularly in this setting, is depressing evidence that even in this moment of historic opportunity for a big, bold, genuinely progressive politics in this country, there is not yet a single leading figure ready to step up and tackle our most pernicious and destructive national sickness.