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Racial Wallpaper

June 20, 2015

Charleston, South Carolina may never lose its association with slavery and rebellion. Antebellum South Carolina was the foremost advocate of nullification, and with a majority of its population enslaved to a minority, was perhaps the most economically dependent on slavery. South Carolina was the first to secede from the Union.

Charleston was one of the commercial and cultural capitals of the Old South. The Civil War began in Charleston, with the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Charleston, like South Carolina as a whole, remained at the forefront of segregation and racial oppression for nearly a century after reconstruction.

But something has happened in Charleston in recent decades, something many of us Northerners haven’t fully appreciated: Charleston has dramatically parted ways with the rest of its state.

After emancipation, many freed slaves fled the countryside for the relative protection of Charleston. Charleston’s population became as much as three-quarters black, and remained about half African-American until just a few decades ago. These demographics profoundly influenced Charleston’s politics in both pre-Civil Rights and post-Civil Rights eras: first the white minority ruthlessly suppressed African-American votes; more recently African-Americans became an essential voting bloc.

South Carolina was governed by Democrats from Reconstruction until 1975, when the state elected the first of five Republican governors. Charleston has not had a Republican mayor since Reconstruction. In other words, as Southern conservatives moved from the Democratic to the Republican party, Charlestonians moved from being conservative to being modern Democrats.

The current mayor of Charleston, Joseph Riley, Jr., took office in 1975. In the characterization of the New York Times, Riley “has been a singular political phenomenon, a white Southern progressive whose sympathy for black causes early in his career prompted conservative whites to derisively call him L.B.J., for “Little Black Joe.” In 2000, Riley helped lead the protests against the display of the Confederate flag above the state capitol in Columbia. He joined New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

Mayor Riley is credited with revival of the city’s economy, and Charleston is today culturally and politically all but unrecognizable from the point of view of its Civil War-era past. In 2006, while South Carolinians as a whole imposed a ban on same-sex marriage by a 56-point margin, a majority of Charlestonians opposed the ban. Today, although Charleston’s black population is down to about a quarter of the city, five of 12 City Council districts are represented by African-Americans. (By comparison, in New York City, which like Charleston is about 25 percent African-American, 11 of 51 City Council seats are held by African-Americans.)

After this week’s racist mass murder in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Mayor Riley has been clear-eyed and resolute. While the right-wing has decided that the shooting was an attack on Christians and religious freedom, Riley has decried gun proliferation and worked for racial unity.

Jon Stewart was so disturbed by the attack that he devoted his customary introductory monologue to it, suspending comedy for the night. He referred to streets named for Confederate generals, and to the Confederate battle flag that still flies on the capitol grounds in Columbia, and he called them “racial wallpaper” – part of the American background that gains little explicit notice but subtly colors people’s moods.

We used to post signs that said things like “Whites only.” We got rid of those signs, but our national hallways are still wallpapered with Confederate flags and busts of Confederate generals, and the message remains the same: African-Americans need not apply; don’t even try; you do not belong. Daily life in America is rife with little messages that African-Americans do not belong. Those messages are part of American culture; they are our racial wallpaper.

Confederate nostalgia is a pretense. A Confederate flag bumper sticker certainly identifies the car’s owner as white; African-Americans do not frame portraits of Stonewall Jackson in their homes. Confederate nostalgia is a means to suppress African-Americans by denying them a sense of belonging and is therefore a means to preserve white supremacy – just as clearly as, if less violently than, the marauding terrorism of the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan.

This week’s mass murder of nine African-Americans by a white man who was given their courtly Southern hospitality is merely one more demonstration that America will not know peace until our walls are stripped clean of our racial wallpaper.


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