Racial summit at Kingston Plantation embraces middle class, middle road
BY ALEX TODOOVIC
Business, religious and elected officials met last month at Kingston Plantation in Myrtle Beach to talk about race. The summit, Imagine South Carolina, was sponsored by a long list of corporations, churches and universities. Generating a tremendous amount of publicity, the media hailed the event a success.
Steve Skardon, executive director of the Palmetto Project and organizer of the event, said the summit grew out of a series of county group meetings.
"Blacks and whites don't have a natural interaction point," he said. "The Palmetto Project had already accomplished that in 22 or 23 counties. Most of the work involved winning the confidence of blacks and whites."
Imagine South Carolina was the culmination of that effort. Its purpose was "a starting point in refocusing civic conversation on the promise of community in our state. Such conversation does not ignore the racial divisions, but seeks to confront and transcend them in ways that heal the fractures of the past and empower a common vision of the future."
But the gathering seemed to focus more on "transcending" than "confronting."
Rev. Joe Darby said, "It had a seventies Kumbaya' air about it. It was more polite than I would have liked."
Others complained that the conference seemed far removed from the real world.
"I think any attempt to find common ground on race relations is good," said Rep. Joe Neal, "but it has to bear some relationship to the realities of this state and not be just a feel-good event. Where I am concerned is whether the conference had any bearing on reality in terms of what we do here in South Carolina."
The frame of reference for the discussion on race was unapologetically middle-class. It was held at Kingston Plantation, a splashy seaside resort in Myrtle Beach.
One panelist found his very presence in the resort to be an indicator of achievement, pointing out that he would not have been allowed in such a place 30 years ago.
What is different about race relations at the turn of the millennium is that a significant percentage of African-Americans now identify themselves as middle-class and have a vested interest in maintaining good relationships with the business community. Many at the conference, for instance, who grew up unable to drink from certain water fountains now hold prominent positions in their communities.
But for many African-Americans, particularly in the younger generation, their relationship with whites doesn't really matter. They live with economic segregation as rigid as Jim Crow. They went unrepresented at the conference, and nobody seemed to miss them.
Perhaps because of time limitations, panelists avoided specifics. One after another they said we need to spend more on education, on technology in schools and in building community. We need to put our children first, they said. All of these things we can all agree upon.
There was a tense moment at the conference when Atty. Gen. Charles Condon addressed race and crime, proclaiming that statistics speak for themselves.
Nobody tried to stop Condon from painting crime with a black face. Nobody pointed out disparate sentencing laws between powder cocaine and crack that has filled up this nation's jails with young black men. Nobody pointed out that it is easier to buy a gun than it is to receive drug treatment or counseling.
Instead of dealing with the hard issues, the level of dialogue was typified by a comment by a USC graduate student who urged African-American children to, "Perceive your future as prosperous. If you perceive it that way, you will be successful."
It was like psycho-babbler Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live, who told the starving and war weary Kurds in Iraq to look in a mirror and repeat, "I'm good enough I'm smart enough and gosh darn it, people like me."
The most valuable part of the event happened when the panels broke up into discussion groups, which allowed them to sit together and talk on a personal level.
The problem of race relations are complicated by class divisions. Where 30 years ago there was at least the promise of economic improvement for African Americans, today tensions are heightened by the unrelenting economic slippage for the working class.
"It had a seventies 'Kumbaya' air about it. It was more polite than I would have liked."
Rev. Joe Darby