By Barney Blakeney
I haven’t seen the recently revealed video of white College of Charleston students engaged in racist behavior that’s created a stir among Black students and given the local media another hot button story. After writing about racism in Charleston the past 40 years, I’m hardly moved.
I’ve lived with racism a lot longer than I’ve written about it. It’s like living with a crippling disability. You realize its impediments, but you learn to overcome them. That ability becomes a survival mechanism. You learn to use those mechanisms subconsciously. Bear in mind however, it never gets any easier to navigate through life with the impediments of racism and you never consider it acceptable. You just learn to deal with it.
A few months back I heard a witness of a shootout at a North Charleston restaurant remark that kind of behavior has become so prevalent, it’s normal. I asked myself, where have we come as a community that a shootout at a public restaurant can be considered normal? It’s amazing what people will accept as normal behavior.
So I wasn’t surprised at the video of College of Charleston students espousing racism. In a community where a white cop was recorded shooting an unarmed Black man seven times in the back as he ran away and where an avowed white supremacist was recorded calmly leaving the scene of a murderous massacre after killing nine Black people at a church, the video of a few white students mouthing off racism comparatively is passé. As other pictures from the campus that have surfaced recently attest, students at the school often engage in racist characterizations.
The racism demonstrated in the recent College of Charleston video shouldn’t be so outrageous. Indeed, I think it’s not! Folks play the outrage role, but perpetuate racism on an ongoing basis in their daily lives. I recently interviewed the commander of Joint Base Charleston, a Black man and a colonel in the Air Force. As wing commander Col. Terrence Adams is responsible for $7.5 billion in base property and capital assets and controls an annual budget exceeding $172 million. He commands some 7,509 active duty and Air Reserve Component military and civilian.
During the interview I asked Adams if he has encountered racism in our community. Nothing direct, he said, but he related a story about parking his car while attending a function a week after assuming command last year. Adams noted he wasn’t in uniform and as he parked in the allotted space for dignitaries attending the function a white parking attendant approached him and asked why he had parked there. The implication being that a Black man couldn’t be a dignitary at the function. It’s that implied racism Black people live with every day, all day.
South Carolinians are now beet red proud the Confederate Flag has been removed from the Statehouse grounds. Nevermind that it took 50-plus years and nine Black lives to make it happen. Lest we forget, the same racism that took place as the Confederate Flag flew over the Statehouse all those years, continues still as racist lawmakers backed by the state supreme court perpetuate policies that created ‘The Corridor of Shame’ in public education.
Those students in that College of Charleston video are the future racists who will set policy in our businesses, schools and halls of justice years from now. Future racists are blatantly and openly being groomed at our institutions of higher learning as we fake outrage at situations we know exist.
Okay so where do we go from here? A few months ago one of the pillars in education at the College of Charleston was buried. Born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Dr. Alpha Bah was a graduate of Howard University. In 1986, Bah and his wife moved their family to Charleston to take a teaching position at the College of Charleston. Bah touched many people during his 25 years at The College of Charleston. Bah was instrumental in establishing the African Studies Program and Minor. In addition, his research on the connections between West Africa and the Carolina Lowcountry was groundbreaking.
Bah knew fully the daily imposition of racism at the College of Charleston. At his death colleague Richard H. Bodek wrote, “I’m sure that each one of us who knew Alpha (Bah) has a memory or story about him. I’m heartbroken, but want to remember him with a smile. I remember one time that the two of us were invited by a former CofC president to some special event to celebrate religious and campus diversity. When lunch rolled around, we were served pork barbecue. Alpha said something like, ‘Richie (he was the only person who ever called me that), this is Charleston and the Lowcountry for you. They will talk about important things, and then this is what they give to a Jew and a Muslim.”
Bah understood our community as most of us do – we’ll cry crocodile tears the night of the Emanuel AME murders and four years later continue to perpetuate the racist policies that continue disparities in poverty which have remained unchanged since the 1940s. For example the median income for Blacks in Charleston County is less than half that of whites in the county. The unemployment rate for Blacks in the county doubles that of whites. And while white students graduate high school at a rate of about 90 percent, Black students graduate at only about 75 percent.
Like most people I’m outraged by the racism demonstrated in the recent College of Charleston video, but as I said, I’m relatively unmoved. I see the manifestations of that racism on an ongoing basis. Even now efforts at the College of Charleston are underway to dismantle many of the gains in integration achieved over the past four decades. As we’re being outraged at some racist video, we’d best keep our eyes on the future on the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture.