We can do better
Charleston’s Special Commission on Equity, Inclusion, and Racial Conciliation report
By Maurice Washington
Maurice Washington has been in public service to the Lowcountry since 1991. Image provided.
On June 9, 2020, Mayor John Tecklenburg and Charleston City Council voted to create the Special Commission on Equity, Inclusion and Racial Conciliation (SCEIRC). According to the recently released report, SCEIRC was charged with making the city’s apology (which was the right thing to do) for slavery and Jim Crow more than just a promise — rather a commitment to revealing and dismantling systemic racism through policy-level change.
Addressing racial issues is difficult for many. I applaud the individuals of the commission on their courage to do so. They have done much work. The final report (545 pages) is larger than the city’s 2021 budget document, which is 527 pages.
Indeed, some of the recommendations (which I will focus on in a future column) should be accepted and, if executed correctly, may improve social, economic and housing opportunities for blacks in Charleston. In this column I focus on the recommendations that I believe would further erode social, economic and race relations for blacks if approved and implemented. Still, city officials should have robust discussions on them and, without hesitation, reject them.
However, the report incorrectly assumes that the challenges facing particularly blacks are related to a legacy of slavery and discrimination. Americans (of all races) are optimistic people, but we care more about the future than the past. We care about the past mostly as much as it helps us to deal with the uncertainties of our future. Our historic victimization must never be forgotten, but it is best remembered through the
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stories of our groundbreaking victories over oppression through faith, courage, talent, persistence, ingenuity and hard work.
The report also upholds the long-held stereotypes of black people as helpless bystanders in their own history. We have had entrepreneurs, skilled tradesmen, military officers, inventors, organizers and many others who responded to adversity by marshaling resources, building local enterprises and creating jobs. We organized and acted to defeat slavery, segregation and deprivation, and then we persevered to build businesses that included banks, hotels, small factories and a black-owned railroad.
In addition to the consequences of slavery, these contributions of black Americans should have been at the very center of the story we tell ourselves and others about who we are. Those who prefer to focus on our victimization don’t always want to recognize it, but the ways our ancestors exercised agency in bondage formed the foundation of their successes (or failures) after they were freed.
The report emphasized the responsibilities that white America has to make up for the past but failed to address the things that black Americans have to do. I believe this creates an interesting dance, if you will, that has allowed African Americans and African American leadership, in particular, to play, for instance, the race card. This was in full display at the livestreamed YouTube commission meeting on August 4, 2021. During the meeting it was made abundantly clear by several of the black members that “If you want to not be seen as racist, or plan to run for reelection, you have to do thus and so.” And so it’s a kind of manipulation of the moral power that blacks have over whites.
Black Americans are acutely aware of white guilt and can be very quick to see racism in situations, even in some where it doesn’t exist, because racism is our power over whites. And so we tend to embrace it and see it. And if you want to make many of our black leaders angry, just tell them that racism is not the number one problem that black Americans face. The commission missed a huge opportunity to say with conviction that, though slavery and discrimination undeniably are a tragic part of our city and nation’s history, we have made strides along its long and tortuous journey to realize its promise and abide by its founding principles — and that black Americans should not be portrayed as perpetual helpless victims.
People are motivated to achieve, and overcome the challenges that confront them, when they learn about inspiring victories that are possible and are not barraged by constant reminders of injuries they have suffered.
Interestingly, the special commission encouraged city leaders to support cultural competency and changes to curriculum, i.e. critical race theory and “The 1619 Project,” and to use city taxpayer dollars to leverage $100 million for reparations and provide a guaranteed minimum income fund indexed to the cost of living for black residents who have lived in Charleston for ten years or more or were born in the city of Charleston.
“The 1619 Project” is a misguided effort whose aim is to keep open historical wounds while telling only half the story. It is flawed because it is connected to critical race theory and a diversity-inclusion grievance industry that focuses on identity politics and division. To blame today’s families for the mistakes of long-dead ancestors is not a prescription for unifying the city or empowering racial and ethnic minorities.
There is no way out for whites when it comes to race. Critical race theory assumes that racism is permanent and affects every aspect of society, including political, economic, social and religious institutions as is stated in the special commission report. This flawed theory suggests that race and ethnicity will always taint and pollute every decision, and as a result racial minorities will consistently lose out to whites because of structural racism. The message is clear: If you are unfortunate enough to be born with black skin, you are forever a second-class citizen who pays a race penalty.
Sadly, universities and colleges have created a cottage industry of people who profit from indoctrinating America’s future leaders with a dangerous and destructive ideology. These future leaders spread this diseased ideology, like a virus without antidote, into corporate boardrooms as well as K-12 public and private schools, both Christian and non-Christian. Education is now about white privilege indoctrination.
The issue of reparations is not new. In 1999, several African nations demanded that the West pay $777 trillion in reparations. This argument was curious in that many if not most Africans were sold into slavery by other Africans. In 2004, the British government was sued for reparations for its role in the slave trade. Nothing was paid, but — as Charleston has done — the British prime minister apologized for Britain’s participation in the slave trade. In the Caribbean, many nations also demanded reparations to no avail.
There actually have been reparations aplenty. The War on Poverty has spent more than $23 trillion in reparations since 1965. And should we believe that more than 50 years of affirmative action programs and race consciousness have done nothing to change the trajectory or opportunities of people born without white skin? If they haven’t, why then should local taxpayers believe that $100 million more will?
This is not to say that, if there is really such a thing as white guilt, I would be unhappy to receive any money someone might want to send me. But as a matter of law I consider it ridiculous. Yes, many were exploited, but many also received an education provided by whites who founded a number of our black colleges. Indeed, Howard University is named for Union General Oliver O. Howard, who commanded a wing of Sherman’s army. I find it hard to believe that Howard, Spelman and Morehouse Colleges were founded by whites to victimize blacks.
The city of Charleston is a living, breathing history museum. A key element in preventing her from becoming just another Anytown, USA, is her rich history. Her history (the good and bad) belongs to her, not a mayor or a city council, and must be preserved. The special commission’s recommendation to establish a mechanism for soliciting suggestions from the public for removal and recontextualization of public art installations, and of naming and renaming of public spaces, including but not limited to parks, streets and buildings, would be very bad public policy.
We can do better. Within Christian communities, there is a basis for countering destructive narratives that have invaded our cities and educational institutions. The solution for hatred, bitterness and distrust is not embedded in the special commission report but can be found in New Testament principles. Rather than wallow in the past and revisionists’ efforts to build a case for reparations, CRT and purging of history, we, as Americans, need to move forward while practicing the forgiveness and love of neighbor that Jesus espoused.
We need not look any further than the Golden Rule — do unto others as you would have them do unto you — to find the tools that enable us to transcend racial and ethnic conflicts that keep us from working together and celebrating our victories.
Maurice Washington is chairman of the Charleston County Republican Party and former Charleston City Council member. He is president CEO of Trust Management, LLC, and is committed to a life of public service.