The Confederate Flag debate in South Carolina and shocking racial
disparities in our criminal justice system have the potential to inflict
necessary pain on 400 years of white privilege. The rebel flag is the most
visible historical symbol of white privilege. A comprehensive report just
released revealing that black youth are 6 times more likely to be locked up
than white youths charged with similar crimes confirms the totality of white
privilege in the United States. Recognizing the continuing scandal of
economic and social oppression of African-Americans is very painful to white
privilege but without the truth, there can be no reconciliation. No pain,
Those of moderate, mainstream white privilege like our Governor, our
business leaders and their friends are feeling the pain and want to end the
"divisive debate" about the flag with a "compromise" now. Even some of the
less privileged whites who deify Dixie and "honor their heritage" by
working to keep the Confederate Flag flying high at the State House are
beginning to feel the pain as the debate unravels their myths of "heritage"
symbolized by the flag.
My dictionary defines "heritage" as "property that descends to an heir", and
"something possessed as a result of one's natural situation or birth."
These definitions describe what happened to black slaves when their white
slave master died and his heirs inherited them. Since the Civil War, white
privilege, a/k/a white supremacy, has been handed down "as a result of one's
natural situation or birth". Descendants of black slaves have continued to
suffer terror, discrimination and economic oppression as a result of the
heritage of white privilege.
The most visible symbol of white privilege has been the Confederate Battle
Flag. It was waved by Confederate soldiers defending the "peculiar
institution" of chattel slavery, by night riders terrorizing blacks after
Reconstruction, by Klan lynch mobs in the first half of the twentieth
century, by angry red-necks assaulting freedom fighters during the civil
rights struggle, and by the Grand Dragon of the Klan as he exhorted his
followers to burn black churches in 1996.
The poor, less privileged whites who have waved the Confederate Flag in the
front lines of the battle for white supremacy are also victims of racism.
We took the depositions of the Grand Dragon and Imperial Wizard of the
Klan group in a civil action in which the Klan was found liable for 37
million dollars in damages in 1998 for burning a black church in Clarendon
County, South Carolina. They revealed their socio-economic status which was
almost as substandard as poor African-American's.
For 400 years in the South such poor white folks have suffered from a lack
of educational and economic opportunity and inferior health care like poor
black people, but have been taught by their "heritage" of whiteness to blame
their problems on African-Americans who are even greater victims of such
racism. Their whiteness is almost their only source of status and self
worth. The chief economic benefactors of this race-based division are
business interests who maintain a cheap labor market because poor
working-class whites refuse to organize politically or join labor unions
with even poorer working-class blacks. So business leaders want to end
this painful flag debate.
The Senate "compromise" that relocates the flag to a position of prominence
in front of the State House steps is not even a small step towards righting
the wrongs of 400 years of racism in South Carolina. We must launch
legislative initiatives to repair the damage. As we debate moving a
symbolic piece of cloth we should debate moving massive amounts of money for
public schools, health care and economic development into the chronically
neglected,. poor areas of our state.
We must also reform racial profiling and racial injustice in our criminal
justice system. South Carolina's juvenile justice system is a microcosm of
the national situation reported in today's media. Nationally, black kids
charged with violent crimes are 9 times more likely to be sent to prison
than white kids, and black youth charged with drug offenses are 48 times
more likely to go to prison than whites.
To reach racial reconciliation we must end white privilege.
Tom Turnipseed, former President of the SC Trial Lawyers Association, is a
plaintiff's and civil rights attorney in Columbia, SC. He was co-counsel for
the Macedonia Baptist Church, an African American congregation in Clarendon
County, SC which won a $37,000,000.00 (Thirty Seven Million Dollar) verdict
in 1998 against the Ku Klux Klan for burning their church. A former SC State
Senator, he is active in state politics and has been the democratic nominee
for state Attorney General and Congress. Tom is President of the Center for
Democratic Renewal (formerly the Anti-Klan Network) a nationally recognized
civil rights organization based in Atlanta. In 1998, he received the
Holmes-Weatherly Award, the Unitarian-Universalist Association's highest
honor for the pursuit of social justice. For many years, Tom has spoken and
written on political and human rights. He has hosted radio and television
shows in Columbia, SC and recently appeared on PBS' American Experience in
"George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire", April 23rd and 24th, 2000,
MSNBC's "Equal Time" with Oliver North and Paul Begala, February 18th, 2000
and C-SPAN's "Washington Journal" with Brian Lamb, January 14th, 2000. His
work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The
Atlanta Constitution, The Charlotte Observer and other papers.