Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Disproportionate poor not to blame for South Carolina's ills

Readers of Andy Brack's Statehouse Report will recognize below a letter to the editor published in the most recent edition of that newsletter. (Those who do not subscribe are encouraged to do so.)

Since the young man signed his letter, it's revealing no secret to repost that information here:

To Statehouse Report:

I took note of your recent post ["The numbers tell a story of challenges," 6/25] listing the abysmal percentages that SC ranks in comparison to other states in certain categories. I am unclear on your intent and who your intended audience is in reporting this highly skewed and extremely pessimistic list, especially in the forum which you chose. How does a piece like this serve any positive purpose?

SC is a state complete with talented and educated people as well as unskilled and uneducated people ... as with every state. What SC does have, which is different than many other states, is a disproportionate percentage of a lower socioeconomic population (both black and white). It is very clear that a piece like this speaks heavily and directly to this economic and social class difference. To say that your “list” is a reflection on this lower class is accurate, but to say (and print) that this is a reflection of SC as a whole, is misleading and does the entire state and it’s educated population a huge disservice.

Others view SC as an uneducated and backwards state because that is the information that we provide to them. If we can begin to frame our negative statistics and attribute them to where they belong, you and others will see that we are not very different from other states and might even be a bit better.

-- Craig Delk, Charleston, SC

The summary of "abysmal percentages" to which Delk refers is found here, and I posted a similar set of abysmal data here.

It is easy to dismiss Delk's letter as the cranky angst of a promoter who wants to sweep our defects under the rug and focus attention only on South Carolina's sunny patina. But to dismiss it, I think, is a mistake; I suggest Delk's letter is worthy of intense consideration. In fact, the young man may be, perhaps unwittingly, giving voice to the base instincts of many others.

Consider his points:
-The list of data collected and published by Brack is "highly skewed and extremely pessimistic," he says. Delk does not question the data itself, only the collection and publication of it. Why? Because it is easier to criticize the dissemination of the information than it is to address the problems reflected by the data.

-South Carolina, like other states, is a mixture of "talented and educated" and "unskilled and uneducated people," but it suffers from "a disproportionate percentage of a lower socioeconomic population (both black and white)," he says. Delk offers no census data or other evidence to demonstrate the disproportionate percentage he perceives, and I have no interest in doing his research for him. But his assertion -- and his language -- is telling: Rather than face and address the individual South Carolinians reflected in Brack's summary of data, it is easier for Delk -- and likely of others who share his values, else he would not feel comfortable airing his view to a general readership of Brack's newsletter -- to group those individuals together and label them as he did, by their class. By establishing people of lesser means as a sort of "other" and grouping them together, it's easier to attach stereotypes to them, to dehumanize them, and to disregard their needs.

-Brack's summary of data, Delk writes, "speaks heavily and directly to this economic and social class difference." The charge -- a simple charge of "class warfare" -- underscores his earlier animus toward Brack's dissemination of information; to wit, Brack isn't interested in solving problems, he's engaging in class warfare, and for what purpose?

- Delk's next sentence is the revelatory one: "To say that your 'list' is a reflection on this lower class is accurate, but to say (and print) that this is a reflection of SC as a whole, is misleading and does the entire state and it’s educated population a huge disservice." Delk, speaking for himself but comfortably representing the view of friends and intimates, is offended that Brack or anyone else would post data reflecting the misfortune of others -- though they live in our communities, towns, cities, counties, and our state -- and leave open the possibility that readers outside our state would lump us all together. Underlying the offense is a well-known set of tropes: Education imputes rightness and, more importantly, goodness. Lack of education imputes wrongness and, indeed, badness. Good things come to good people, who deserve them for being good; bad things happen to bad people, who deserve them for being bad. Those of us who are educated, the logic follows, have a right to be offended when the other/bad/undeserving/lower socioeconomic class impedes our view of ourselves as a state. And we hold a special sense of offense when one we presume to come from our own class -- think of Franklin Roosevelt, called a "traitor to his class" -- like Brack, in this case, gins up a portrait that mars the view we hold of ourselves, as we represent our state.

-Delk repeats his point-of-view in his penultimate point: "Others view SC as an uneducated and backwards state because that is the information that we provide to them." Again, in his view, the data itself is not the problem; rather, the problem is the dissemination of the data.

But, in fact, the data is the problem. Observers don't see us as "uneducated and backwards" because that's the only face we show them. It's because that's our face.

For example, we chose to elect a state treasurer, Thomas Ravenel, some years ago who was criminally unsuited to the role, and was a cocaine dealer besides. I doubt it was our "disproportionate percentage of lower socioeconomic population" who forced him to traffic in cocaine, or even who elected him. Ruling them out leaves the guilt on the presumably educated class which Delk offers to represent.

Likewise, we elected a lieutenant governor, Andre Bauer, who drove recklessly through downtown Columbia and berated a police officer for applying the law equally to all citizens, and who later equated the poor to yard animals. We elected Governor Mark Sanford, who carried on an extramarital affair while in office, even sneaking out of the country to be with his mistress, and lying to us and everyone else. One of our elected representatives to Congress, Joe Wilson, shouted down the president of the United States in the middle of a live broadcast of a State of the Union address.

And it isn't just our elected officials; appointed ones have done their part, too. Only two years ago, a Columbia police officer found our assistant Attorney General Roland Corning parked in a cemetery with a prostitute -- or stripper, depending on which official source you consult -- and a variety of adult toys and Viagra in his car. Our assistant Attorney General explained that he "always had" these things in his car, "just in case."

Lest we mistakenly believe South Carolina's vulnerability to misfortune is a recent affliction, or an affliction of our "disproportionate percentage of lower socioeconomic population," we should consult history.

We elected Rep. Preston Brooks to Congress, who in 1856 beat down Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the floor of the Senate with a walking cane -- beat him unconscious, and continued beating him -- leaving Sumner with permanent damage, so badly injured that he couldn't work for three years. We hailed Brooks as a conquering hero. A marble plaque in his honor is installed in the foyer of our Caroliniana Library on USC's Columbia campus.

We chose to secede from our nation, and persuaded other states to leave with us; it turned out badly for us and for them, yet we continue to honor and celebrate the cause for which we seceded. It's hard for out-of-state observers to ignore a state holiday -- or the flag we continue to fly in front of our State House.

We elected former Governor Ben Tillman to the U.S. Senate after he participated actively in the murders of innocent black militia members in Hamburg in 1876, and later made the entertaining and psychotic threat that he would drive a pitchfork through President Grover Cleveland's gut. And when he died, we erected a statue in Tillman's honor on the State House grounds, where it stands today.

When we were prohibited from keeping slaves, we excluded minorities as much as possible from our growing industrial economy, using impoverished women and children in our factories instead. We fought the progressive movement of the early twentieth century that led to child labor laws in other states, keeping our own 10-, 11- then 12-year-olds on mill payrolls until 1905.

Our elected lieutenant governor in 1903, James Tillman, angry at the truthful reports and editorials being published in The State newspaper, shot and killed, on the State House grounds, the newspaper's editor. He was appropriately charged with murder, but his uncle -- the same U.S. Senator who murdered innocents and threatened to maim a president -- intervened to move the trial from Richland County to Lexington County, and attended every day of it, at the end of which the jury unanimously voted the younger Tillman innocent of the charges.

We fought the campaign for a constitutional amendment allowing women the right to vote. Our legislature never ratified that amendment until 1969 -- 49 years after it became federal law without us.

When our mill workers sought to organize themselves as a union and negotiate for better working conditions, we watched them murdered in Honea Path in 1934, and we watched their factory shut down and themselves booted from their jobs in Darlington in 1956.

In part because of President Harry Truman's executive order integrating the armed forces, our Senator Strom Thurmond ran for president in 1948 on a segregationist platform. We and three other southern states gave him our electoral votes.

In 1952, in anticipation of Supreme Court rulings prohibiting segregation, we adopted a constitutional amendment empowering the legislature to close public schools, if necessary, to prevent integration. When the Court ruled in 1955 that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional, our Governor Olin Johnston announced to a special session of our legislature that we, as a state, would defy that ruling. We appointed a School Segregation Committee, chaired by Senator Marion Gressette, to maintain that position for as long as possible. To honor Gressette for his long service, we named our state Senate Office Building for him.

Though we've existed as a colony, then a state, for 341 years, it was only 34 years ago that we adopted a law providing a formula and a mechanism by which to fund annually our state public school system. Yet even that proves too great a commitment; we've fully funded our own 34-year-old, outdated formula only a handful of times.

We were so preoccupied in the 1990s with maintaining the supremacy of the racist policies of our heritage that our lawmakers wasted months, perhaps years, of time debating the placement of the Confederate battle flag, which still holds a place of prominence on our Capitol grounds. So important was the single issue to us that it became a topic of conversation in the presidential primaries of 2000.

So peculiar is the issue of race in our history that a single impolitic remark about Strom Thurmond's run for the presidency cost Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott his party position. And so peculiar was it still that after Thurmond's death in 2003, we heard the rumors of a biracial daughter called, by our still-sitting Congressman Joe Wilson, a "smear on the image... [of] a person of high integrity who has been so loyal to the people of South Carolina." Indeed, the rumors proved to be accurate, and the granite base beneath the nine-foot-tall bronze statue honoring Thurmond was revised, with Essie Mae Washington Williams's name carved elegantly beneath the names of her much younger half-siblings.

And all of this occurred before our Governor Sanford carried two piglets up to the lobby outside the House chamber, where they soiled the rug, woven on historic looms at Oxford Mills of Mississippi, that had been installed as part of the multi-million-dollar restoration of the Capitol only a few years before.

It is arguable that none of these deeds or developments were the fault of South Carolina's "disproportionate percentage of lower socioeconomic population." Yet these are the pieces that give observers from outside South Carolina their view of our state.

In his final point, Delk proposes in his letter of criticism to editor Brack that we accentuate the positive, with regard to the awful data reflecting the status of South Carolina's poor and unfortunate: "If we can begin to frame our negative statistics and attribute them to where they belong, you and others will see that we are not very different from other states and might even be a bit better."

Sadly, neither lies nor obfuscation, nor ignoring, nor "reframing" facts and figures, will produce silk purses from sow's ears. Neither Brack nor the other sensible reporters and editors of our pitiful reality are to blame for what is. If our goal is to produce and disseminate news of wonderful outcomes, we as a state -- our educated middle- and upper-class, too -- might succeed by focusing on addressing our problems at their roots.

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