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Let's get beyond racial divisiveness once and for all
By Andy Brack
S.C. Statehouse Report

DEC. 22, 2002 - - Every two or three years, events cause people across the nation to look hard at South Carolina. On the last two occasions, they surely didn't like what they saw.

In 2000, they looked because of the brouhaha over the Confederate flag on the Statehouse. This month, they looked because of the hullabaloo over off-the-cuff birthday comments by Senate leader Trent Lott that eventually highlighted the segregationist past of U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond.

In both cases, Americans saw a South Carolina where race remains an issue. In both instances, outsiders more than likely wondered, "When are they going to move on in South Carolina, get past this race thing and join the 21st century?"

Indeed. When?

Imagine what a businessman in New York, a developer in Illinois or a high-tech guru in California thinks when he sees how the state continues to struggle with racial issues. He can't be expected to think, "Gosh, that's a place where I want to move my business and hundreds of jobs."

The stark reality is race remains a divisive issue in our state. Until South Carolinians confront race relations in a positive way, the burden of the past will hold back South Carolina's public efforts to get better jobs and improve education. Instead of being able to run swiftly toward a rich future, the state will inch forward pulling the ball and chain of race.

There's little government can do. Lawmakers can't pass laws to make people treat each other better. But there is something simple you can do the next time a racial incident occurs - - say something about it.

"When those moments occur, we need to be willing as citizens and leaders to stand up and be different and make a different statement about our future," said Charleston businessman David Agnew. Some other ideas:

Lead by example. Gov.-elect Mark Sanford reached out to blacks during his campaign. If he and the GOP are serious about creating a new administration not filled with yuppie white guys, Sanford needs to make cabinet and board appointments so his administration looks like South Carolina.

Spread the good word. There are so many great things about South Carolina that the state's business, government and media leaders should do more to get out positive messages about us.

Community dialogues. Those involved with the effort to deal with race say most community dialogues on the subject are among people who already are open about race. Those dialogues, while helpful, involve "preaching to the choir" and don't really reach the mass audience in South Carolina.

Perhaps a way to broach tough racial issues is through churches, where the last public vestiges of racial separation remain. White and black church leaders should work together to create real community dialogues and interactions. It won't be easy, but "it doesn't need to be as sweet as it is," said the Rev. Joseph Darby, pastor of Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston.

Community projects. Fostering more community projects sparks racial understanding, said Steve Skardon, executive director of The Palmetto Project. When black and white members of a community join to work on a project - - building a Habitat for Humanity house or renovating a park - - they break down real barriers at the same time, he said.

Youth Unity Task Forces. The Palmetto Project's youth mentoring program in 70 middle and high schools across the state brings youths together and helps them understand more about race. Through teacher training and developing task forces at schools, students create an environment that is socially inclusive, safe and diverse, Skardon said.

Finally, there's one sure way to dealing with race - - patience. Studies show kids are a lot more accepting of people who look different than them. With enough time, they'll be our leaders and prejudice literally will die out. But we owe it to ourselves not to have to wait that long.


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