Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Race continues to influence state support for public schools

"And Huckleberry walked up to the creek, gazed through the clear water to its craggy bottom and watched minnows dart in teams between brownish rocks in its bed. He surveyed the width of it from this bank to the other, and turned left and right to see where its gurgling length had come from and was going to. A stem of hay still pinched in his teeth and pointing from the corner of his mouth, he exhaled and said aloud to himself, "It's a creek, by gum. 'Taint nothing but a creek, an' if I's to lay down and take me a nap, it'd still be a creek when I'd git up. Yep, that's a creek."

Such is the obviousness of a creek to anyone pausing to observe it. A creek defies denial.

It is likewise with the matter of race as an influence on South Carolina's historical commitment to support public education: Yesterday, it was true that race was an influence that led our decision-makers to discount state support for the institution. Today, it is true again. And tomorrow, when we rouse from our dreaming, it will still be true -- unless a wondrous work is wrought so quickly in the night.

Still, once in a while, it bears putting down in ink on paper -- so that future generations may unearth and review how slowly did we come to join the modern world -- that voices did rise full-throatedly in support of public education but that those voices were too few for too long, and that the baggage of generations dragged backward the mass of ourselves four or five steps for every one we managed to struggle forward.

So we should thank National Journal for its effort, in the current edition, to point the attention to the nation, again, to quaint South Carolina. Beloved South Carolina. Enchanted South Carolina. Enshrouded South Carolina. Backward South Carolina.

Journalist Ronald Brownstein, here last week to capture firsthand the circus, captured also some observations on the qualities that haunt our present and stymie our collective future. No, his report is not a review of Governor Nikki Haley's first year; it goes much further than that. Titled "The Color Line," it tells ugly truth.

COLUMBIA, S.C.—Race is no longer as overt a factor in South Carolina politics as it was when Strom Thurmond, who is memorialized in a statue looming over the state Capitol complex here, quit the Democratic Party for the GOP after Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Yet race remains embedded in the state’s political DNA. The role of race in South Carolina politics has moved far beyond the civil-rights era’s questions of explicit discrimination. Today, whether openly discussed or not, race is central to the clash between Democrats and Republicans over taxes and spending. In that way, far more than in the days of the backlash against integration, the state previews what national politics will increasingly resemble if it continues along its current trajectory.

Say it ain't so. An entire nation that reflects our dire statistics? Hope would be lost.

The dominant fact of South Carolina politics is racial polarization. In the 2008 general election, Barack Obama won 96 percent of the state’s African-American vote, but John McCain carried 73 percent of its white voters. That wasn’t an anomaly rooted in Obama’s race: In 2004, George W. Bush won an even higher percentage of the state’s white voters (78) against John Kerry.

And in the 2010 governor’s race, Indian-American Nikki Haley carried 70 percent of whites in the Republican’s narrow victory over Vincent Sheheen, a centrist white Democratic state senator. Sheheen, meanwhile, won 94 percent of the black vote. In Saturday’s critical GOP presidential primary, whites will likely cast more than 95 percent of the ballots (although they represent only about two-thirds of the state’s population).

Brownstein seems to be making a point. It's just a guess, but I'll give it a try and say that progressives vote for Democratic candidates and conservatives vote for Republicans.

Was that not his point? Did I miss it?

Sometimes the two parties in South Carolina collide over issues that directly inflame racial tensions, as they did in 2000 over the display of the Confederate flag. The legislation that Haley signed last May toughening voter-identification requirements -- which the Obama Justice Department has moved to block as racially discriminatory -- has produced similar, if less explosive, collisions.

The flag, the flag -- why, o why, was that thing ever pieced together and tied to a stick in the first place? When, o when, will we be able to take the wretched thing down and move past it? It's already been a century and half since it lost any meaning at all. Are we that slow? Must it take another century? Or two? Are we doomed -- doomed? -- to spin out this insipid tale again and again and again until our tongues lose taste in our mouths, until the colors drain from the earth and sky, until all sounds fade out of cacophony into a dull, flat moan?

Must the entire state die and be lowered into a red clay grave of our own digging, with that ragged flag draped over us all into the ground? Is that what it will take?

Brownstein goes on:

But mostly, racial conflicts in state politics now play out through the parties’ differences over the role of government. African-Americans and other minorities overwhelmingly believe that they need an activist government investing in services, such as education, job training, and health care, to help them ascend into the middle class. Most of South Carolina’s whites are comfortable with a governing model that limits taxes while investing far less than most states in public services. “There is a fundamental difference in attitudes about the role of government between whites and African-Americans,” says veteran South Carolina GOP strategist Warren Tompkins.

Of course there is, and that fundamental difference clawed its way out of its own womb on Oyster Point -- the very first site of Charlestonians' footsteps on colonial soil -- and has dragged itself forward through the ages.

It says, this fundamental difference: I - I - I will have the choicest part of this life for myself and my progeny, while YOU - YOU - YOU will have the least and last parts of it for yourself and yours. And to the extent that I - I - I can deprive YOU - YOU - YOU from having any part of life that resembles what is mine, I shall heave and groan to make certain of it, all the days of my life, and the days of my sons' lives, and their sons' lives, and so on and so on, down through eternity, to the gaping maw of the last grave.

At least, that is one interpretation of what Tompkins told Brownstein. Other interpretations may be equally valid.

The Republican skepticism about government here, as in Washington, manifests most importantly as unwavering opposition to new taxes. Resisting tax increases “is the one issue that unifies Republicans,” says GOP state Sen. John Courson. “It is the chewing gum, or glue, that keeps Republicans together.” Courson, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, acknowledges that commitment to low taxes comes with a cost, particularly for the state’s public-school students, nearly half of whom are now minorities. “The revenue stream has not been there to adequately fund public or higher education in South Carolina,” he says flatly.

We cannot afford it. We cannot afford it.

We can afford many things, many other things, many things that might not benefit everyone, but this we cannot afford.

We can afford corporate tax cuts -- we MUST afford corporate tax cuts -- but this, we cannot afford.

It's a matter of not being able to afford it.

But, like others in his party, Courson argues that the answer is not to increase revenue but to trim waste in the education system and to find savings elsewhere, particularly in Medicaid for the poor.


As Obama does nationally, Democrats in South Carolina offer the counterargument that the state cannot attract good-paying jobs without investing more in education, training, and infrastructure. That case helped Sheheen unexpectedly win the state Chamber of Commerce’s endorsement in the gubernatorial race last year.

Yet in pressing that argument, Democrats face two huge headwinds among South Carolina’s whites. One is the enduring belief that too many government programs benefit the indolent—a group that in many minds is disproportionately composed of minorities. “It’s all race, it’s just that simple,” says John Land, the (white) state Senate Democratic leader. The second problem is a sharp rightward shift among white seniors, who see little personal benefit in the education or infrastructure investments that Democrats favor. “They feel differently about paying taxes for kids they don’t have anymore,” says Democratic state Rep. William Clyburn, who chairs the legislative black caucus.

Or, "I paid for mine up north. I won't pay for theirs down here. Pass the marmalade, Gladys, tee-time's in a half-hour."

In all these ways, the state crystallizes the dynamics shaping the national debate. National polls show that amid tough times, most whites (especially older and blue-collar whites) are hardening in skepticism of government, while most minorities continue to view it as essential to their opportunity. Mitt Romney presents that backlash as opposition to an “entitlement society,” but that’s too broad. Surveys indicate that most Republicans (particularly the white seniors flocking to the party) are adamant about preserving the biggest entitlements, Social Security and Medicare; what they oppose is transfer payments to people they view as undeserving.

Remember this from the early spasms of the Tea Party in 2009: "Don't steal from Medicare to support socialized medicine." And the disbelieving, confused look in the eyes when you explained that Medicare is, in fact, socialized medicine?

It has always been about yours versus mine. We in South Carolina just hang onto old, dead tropes a lot longer than others. The list of examples is long.

It’s that sentiment Newt Gingrich stokes when he derides Obama as “the food-stamp president.” It almost doesn’t matter whether Gingrich is deliberately sending coded racial signals. As long as the argument between the parties revolves so centrally around government’s role -- and whites and minorities divide so sharply in their attitudes toward governmental activism -- the racial polarization that defines South Carolina politics will increasingly drive our national campaigns as well.

Don't mind my humming.

I believe the children are our future.
Teach them well and let them lead the way.

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