Governor's task force opens to mixed reviews
With race relations at a low ebb in South Carolina, there has been a lot of talk about how to turn the tide. In December, the governor appointed a racial task force, and Palmetto Project organized a conference to initiate a dialogue on race. Both events generated considerable publicity, but whether they make any real difference remains to be seen. Their success, in the end, depends largely on you.BY BECCI ROBBINS
When the governor called a press conference just before Christmas to announce he had appointed a task force to smooth racial tensions in South Carolina, suspicions surfaced that the commission had more to do with public relations than race relations.
After all, it seemed odd that David Beasley, who had in his first year as governor forged a stormy relationship with South Carolina's black community, would suddenly rise to its defense.
He had endorsed policies on crime, the environment, social and reproductive services that hurt minorities dispro-portionately. He had clashed with the Legislative Black Caucus. He had aligned himself with supporters of the Confederate flag.
He had appointed only one African-American to his staff, only to have her quit by summertime claiming that she felt shut out of the Beasley administration.
The governor's invitation to speak in November at the annual dinner of the Columbia Urban League about as radical an organization as the Chamber of Commerce generated rumors of a walkout.
So when Gov. Beasley appeared before cameras in December to unveil his task force on race relations, he had some convincing to do.
That job was made harder when he introduced the commission members. Nineteen of 22 were already in place; three more were to be named in January.
The appointments read like the reservation list at a fine restaurant. Those invited to sit at the governor's table included four prominent businessmen, three legislators, two lawyers, two former judges, two police chiefs and two medical professionals. The governor selected a senior vice president of a large bank to sit at the head.
"Racism in any form will not be tolerated in our state," the governor said at his press conference, flanked on the dais by a row of commission members.
The task force, he promised, would foster unity and "an honest and open dialogue that promotes tolerance and greater understanding among all people."
The governor's comments appeared on television that night and the next day on the front page of The State.
A month later, the governor talked about the racial task force in his State of the State address.
"We need this group to help us find solutions, not only solutions which we can legislate on paper, but ones which can be written on the tablets of the human heart. In the end, a people are judged not by how they treated the elite among them, but the least among them."
What he didn't say was that, even after a month of promoting it in public, the task force still hadn't met yet, except once, for a photo op. The three remaining positions had not yet been filled, and no date had been set for the first meeting.
In interviews during the last week of January, several commission members said they had no idea what to expect from the task force, nor what would be expected of them. All they knew was that the governor's office had invited them to serve and that a few days later they had received a certificate in the mail making it official.
"Frankly," said one commission member, "I am embarrassed we haven't met yet. I don't know why we haven't."
They were, by and large, uncomfortable talking about the task force. Of calls put into the governor's office and 18 of the 19 members (one has an unlisted number), only about half were returned. Half of those returned calls were to decline to be interviewed.
About a fourth of the commission, then, made time to talk about the task force and the state of race relations in South Carolina.
But even among the willing minority there was a certain wariness. Getting interviews meant calling most of the task force members several times, sending secretaries sample issues of POINT and lists of questions to be discussed.
Flagstar responded by fax, offering a two-sentence statement.
Several members said they felt it inappropriate to talk about the task force until they had a chance to meet, and suggested that all communication go through the chairman.
But that would prove impossible.
After a week of promises to work out a time to meet with the chairman, Tony Grant's secretary called to say he had decided to postpone talking about the task force until it had met. She suggested taking it up with the governor.
But the governor wasn't feeling chatty either. Nor was his communications staff. It took several calls and two weeks to get any response to even basic questions.
"Gov. Beasley believes that it is always preferable for people to talk to one another instead of at or about one another," the governor's communications director, Ginny Wolfe, responded to question number one, asking why South Carolina needed a task force on race relations. She faxed the response.
Was this what the governor meant when he promised "open and honest dialogue."
Unfortunately, a number of people have felt shut out, saying the governor did not consult them when he set about to put together a task force.
Jesse Washington Jr., executive director of the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council, wrote Gov. Beasley a letter dated Jan. 18 to express his disappointment that his organization, which has worked since the 1960s on improving race relations in the Midlands, had not been called upon.
"The concern stemmed from not pride or ego," he wrote, "but from the vacuum that must arise when the preeminent leader in the field is not consulted or invited to participate."
Washington, who served 15 years with the S.C. Human Affairs Commission and nearly six years with the Community Relations Council, wished the governor well and applauded the formation of the task force, but said he was concerned about the makeup of the group, citing the noticeable absence of young people, blue collar workers or anyone from the lower end of the economic strata.
"The voices of the uneducated, impoverished and forgotten will, I fear, be lost in the commotion that attends such lofty undertakings," he said.
Others in the progressive community agree that the commission is not well-balanced. They point to the fact that it is a racial task force which includes no black women, no Asians, no Latinos, nobody with a rural address.
They fear that the inevitable outcome and maybe even the commission's original intent is protection of the status quo.
"It's a joke," says Mildred Myers, founder and director of South Carolina Environmental Watch, a grassroots group working to protect black communities from polluting industries.
Myers has been paying close attention to her government for a long time, and is put off by what she sees as political pandering.
"Frankly, I find Gov. Beasley's task force offensive. It is window dressing, nothing more than that. We have to see some action, and we have seen nothing out of Beasley's office. There is nobody [on the task force] who is really going to address the depths of racism in South Carolina, who is going to tell it like it really is."
Dr. Rick Hill, who teaches political science at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg, has a lot to say about the state of race relations and strong opinions about the governor's task force.
"It's another public relations ploy to convince some people that David Beasley is a good guy and really likes black people," Hill says.
Pointing to the governor's age and aspirations for national office, Hill concludes that the task force is simply smart politics. In spite of his poor relationship with the African-American community, Gov. Beasley now can point to the task force he created as proof he meant well.
"It makes sense for David Beasley to get Tony Grant, [Sen. John] Matthews and other black folks out front who are presumed to have clout with the black community to legitimize him," Hill says.
The appointments of task force members who hail from major companies, Hill says, speak for themselves; the governor is not the only one who stands to benefit from the positive public relations.
Jim Noland is director of personnel at Michelin, the company that is in the process of expanding its operation into South Carolina.
David Bishop is president of Waccamaw Corp., the company which has curried ill favor with envi-ronmentalists for real estate projects along the coast.
Jim Adamson is CEO at Flagstar Corp., owner of Denny's, the restaurant chain charged with using racism as a strategy for turning profits and which paid millions to black customers who filed cases of discrimination. [See "Service with a Sneer," December 1994 POINT.]
"The people Beasley appointed are not out there day to day reckoning with the problem of race relations," Hill says.
"This is a state where a third of the state's population is black, and the vast majority are mired in poverty, dispossession, lacking health care and access to good education."
The problem with race relations, he says, is actually a problem about power and its uneven distribution. "If you don't deal with that issue, you will never really deal with the problem."
Hill doesn't hold much faith that the commission will address the root causes of racial discord. "You can bet the task force is not going to deal with the redistribution of wealth in this state, will not use public policy to eradicate the deep-seated problems of racial domination, will not do those things that would give black citizens a seat at the table and a belief in their future."
Lawrence Moore, director of the South Carolina Rainbow Coalition, thinks the task force is a good idea but that it is likely to have limited impact.
"If they want to talk about why we should love each other, fine." Moore says. "But I want them to tell me why I make less money. Why I can't get decent health care. Why my chances of being incarcerated are higher."
Moore says the black community has grown weary of platitudes. For them, the announcement of a racial task force registered as a blip on the screen. "For black people it was 30 seconds on TV," he says. "They will react to action, when something actually happens."
When Alex Sanders, president of the College of Charleston, appeared on a local radio talk show recently, a caller asked him about his appointment to the task force and his predictions on whether it might accomplish anything meaningful.
Given the governor's poor record on race relations, the caller said, the task force was a sham.
"We are going to give the governor an opportunity to get educated," Sanders responded. He urged on the air, and in a letter to the caller the next day (a copy of which was also sent to the governor), that judgement be reserved until after the task force be allowed to prove itself.
"I could tell you are skeptical," he wrote. "I will try to persuade you of two things. The first is that the governor is sincere in wanting to improve race relations. Why else would he bother to establish the Commission? He certainly has nothing to gain by pandering to the left. Quite obviously, he has few friends there."
Secondly, he wrote, "I would urge that you hold up on either dire predictions for the commission or cynical commentary on its establishment. Prophesies have a way of being self-fulfilling, and surely nobody wants that."
That much is true: nobody wants the task force to fail. That critics bother to respond at all springs from the hope that their concerns might reach the governor and be considered before he selects the remaining task force members. Activists with experience in race relations feel they have something valuable to bring to the table. To ignore their expertise is to invite failure.
That the governor already has generated hard feelings bodes ill for the task force. What has been presented as an effort to foster unity and respect diversity has, so far, been divisive and exclusive. At this point in the game, skepticism seems the healthy choice.
Even so, skeptics hope they are wrong. And they well could be, if commission members are granted permission to tackle the hard issues and given the necessary tools. There are enough of them on board, it seems, with sound intentions that they could be a force for good in this beleaguered, always-in-last-place corner of the country.
For the most part, the task force members who took the time to talk seemed motivated by a belief that we can do better, as a state and individually, in dealing with racial differences.
They agree it won't be easy. These are anxious times, when trust is at low ebb.
Sen. John Matthews thinks race relations are worse than they were a decade ago, in large part a result of a political system that has operated during that time on "wedge issues."
When first elected 20 years ago to the General Assembly, it was peopled with older folks, he says, with people who had firsthand experience with blatant racism.
"This is a much younger crowd, with no sensitivity to racial issues. There is much more hostility. [The task force] is a point where we can begin to talk about it, to rekindle dialogue and begin healing. The government has a responsibility to do that."
It is going to be an uphill climb, he predicts. "At this point there is a negative feeling in the African-American community about Republican politics, which is seen as divisive."
He asks critics to hold judgment until they have had a chance to see the results. "I suggest people not judge the governor's intent, whether he did it for personal or selfish reasons. Time is the teller of truth. If it fails, get on us."
Task force member J.T. McLawhorn, director of the Columbia Urban League, has high hopes for the commission. "I'm optimistic about it. If we understand the dynamics dealing with racism, we can come together and work collectively. When you have misunderstanding people tend to polarize."
He calls the commission a "two-edged sword; it swings both ways. I think it was a bold move on the governor's part to open himself up to scrutiny, to say that you will use your office to fight race relations. He has gone on record."
As for the lopsided makeup of the commission, McLawhorn says, "I don't think it is fair to suggest that because someone is economically well-off that he doesn't care about other people. People shouldn't be judged by who they are, but by what they do."
Wanda George Warren, transition director for Catawba Nation, says she remains optimistic about the task force although she admits she is concerned that it is "weighted toward whites."
To find that she is only one of three women on the task force does not surprise her. "I'm used to those odds in South Carolina," she says.
Does she think the task force can accomplish anything of substance? She remains "always hopeful. Catawbas have always been mediators. We've been mediating disputes for a long time. Who knows maybe I inherited a little of that."
To questions about the makeup of the task force, the governor's office said, "The governor tried to achieve a racial, gender and geographic balance of individuals who have a real and personal commitment to achieving racial harmony. He sought representatives who by the nature of their daily activities have much firsthand knowledge of the challenges we face in our efforts to achieve greater understanding.
When asked how the commission plans to address the Confederate flag controversy, the governor's office said, "The task force will determine that."
The flag promises to be a lively debate, with some task force members believing it is a legitimate and obvious issue for the commission to take up. Others find it less compelling. Rep. Jean Harris, for instance, dismisses the flag as "not important." And the governor, of course, supports the flag.
At the Palmetto Project's conference on race relations last month [see story on page 7], which Gov. Beasley attended, several participants asked how the task force planned to deal with the flag issue. The governor said, finally, "If I had wanted a commission on the Confederate flag, I would have created one."
It is unclear how much power the task force will ultimately wield on the flag or any other issue. But some members said they joined the commission only after assurances that all issues would be put on the table and subject to consideration. If that turns out not to be the case, they warn, they will walk.
Public protestations aside, some political observers wonder whether, in truth, the Confederate flag is what lies at the heart of the task force.
They pose the theory that if the commission moves to remove the flag from the State House, Gov. Beasley would be forced to comply. That way, he could appear faithful to his flag-waving constituency while, to a future national audience, he could boast that the flag came down under his watch.
Task force member David Bishop, who attended the Palmetto Project conference, says the summit opened his eyes to the black perspective.
"Maybe I was a little naive," he says, "but I never put that much thought into the Confederate flag issue. It was not high on my agenda. The conference made me more aware of the other side."
Whatever the motivation for creation of the task force, most people can agree there is nothing to lose in talking about the race problem. Whether we are ready for a truly "open and honest dialogue," however, remains to be seen.
The South Carolina Progressive Network will follow the task force's progress. Stay tuned.
"It's another public relations ploy to convince some people that David Beasley is a good guy and really likes black people."
Professor Rick Hill
"The governor is sincere in wanting to improve race relations. He certainly has nothing to gain by pandering to the left. Quite obviously, he has few friends there."
task force member Alex Sanders, president, College of Charleston