South Carolina —“This is absolutely nothing to do with race,” says Ray, a Tea Party activist explaining why he still resents Governor Nikki Haley’s decision to remove the Confederate flag from the State Capitol grounds. One thing I learned early growing up in the South is that it is always about race. So I was not at all surprised when Ray, lest anyone misconstrue his concern with governmental overreach, elaborates: “If they can make us take down the Confederate flag today, they can make us take down all those statues of Martin Luther King tomorrow.”
I spent a week in South Carolina in January, driving from the north coast to the Georgia border, and while I saw statues of John C. Calhoun (secessionist and slave owner), Wade Hampton (secessionist and slave owner), Ben Tillman (ardent segregationist), and Strom Thurmond (ditto), as well as memorials to Robert E. Lee and the Confederate war dead, I didn’t see a single statue of King. So in reading what follows, the safest policy is to assume that whatever the topic, it is also, always, about race—especially when it isn’t supposed to be.
South Carolina is a state built on denial and silence. Nobody tells you that the pristine wildlife sanctuaries scattered throughout the Lowcountry were once rice plantations whose earthen dikes and sluice gates were constructed using slave labor. Or that the Citadel—the state-funded military academy in Charleston, which boasts that its cadets “fired the first hostile shots of the Civil War”—gets its name from an arsenal built in response to a slave revolt led by Denmark Vesey, a carpenter who’d purchased his freedom after winning the lottery. Or that in 2015, more than 60 years after the Brown decision (which included a South Carolina case), segregation in the state’s schools remains the rule rather than the exception.
And it’s not just the schools. Walking down King Street in Charleston, you see very few black faces. There are parts of the city where the demographics would be reversed, but those are steadily shrinking under the pressure of gentrification, to the point that even Emanuel AME Church—Vesey was one of its founders; his son Robert rebuilt the church, which was razed after his father’s trial and execution—is now surrounded by the city’s expanding white middle class.
Yet in the cracked mirror of race, it is whites in South Carolina who say they are oppressed—beaten down by political correctness and the heavy hand of Washington. Only in a state where everyday reality remains separate and unequal would the refusal to expand Medicaid make political—if not economic or moral—sense. While the days of “colored” and “white” drinking fountains may be long gone, political party has become such a reliable proxy for race here that it may come as a shock to learn that the state’s Republican junior senator, Tim Scott, is black. In 2013, Scott came to Myrtle Beach and told the Tea Partiers, “I know you’re not racist…. It’s the other side that plays favorites.”