Charleston, S.C.: A Millennial’s Perspective on Racism in Her City

"When you try to explain it the response is often, ‘Whoa, there buddy! I’m not a racist!’ When the ugly truth is that they are — just a well-meaning one."

Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC, Courtesy Google Maps

By Sheryl Estrada

“Honestly, race relations in Charleston are hard to describe because in white circles, Black people honestly don’t have a place,” Allison* said. “The Black population of Charleston has halved in the last 30 years, gentrification is rampant.”

Allison is a 21-year-old Black female student and a native of Charleston, S.C., who has just completed her third year at a university in New Jersey.

She had a candid conversation with DiversityInc about race relations in Charleston and discussed the mass murder of nine members of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17.

Allison is the youngest in a family of seven. She grew up in downtown Charleston, like her father, and her mother is from a different area of the South.

Her parents often shared with their children stories about life during times of segregation.

“Though [my parents] are fairly young and were born after Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, the South took the sentence ‘with all necessary haste’ to mean as slowly as possible,” Allison said.

However, her parents did not think their children would experience the same kind of racism they did. They championed education in their household. Allison attended good private schools in Charleston. She now attends a prestigious college in the northeast.

She chose to attend a school far away from home because, as she said, “there wasn’t real steps forward in my life I could take in a place that was so stilted, whose solution to the racial tension was to move people out so there wouldn’t be racial tension at all.”

But on the evening of June 17, the awful legacy of white supremacy in her home state, which her parents tried to shield her from, manifested itself yet again. Racist Dylann Roof, with the intentions of starting a race war, shot and killed nine members of the beloved and historic Black church Mother Emanuel.

Allison first learned about the shooting via text message.

“My white best friend from home texted me at 11:45 p.m. at night,” she said. “She was the first to let me know. My mother face-timed me, while my sisters sent me links to Twitter feeds and live news-streaming sites.”

Allison said she and her family knew some of the victims.

“Mother Emanuel is nothing short of a beacon,” she said. “Everyone sees it, knows it. The symbolism for the Black community of Charleston of marring this place of worship, is just, almost unparalleled.”

Allison explained the history of the church, which is intertwined with her family and upbringing:

Denmark Vessy founded it. Coretta Scott King led a protest that ended there. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad. My father was baptized there. Countless people have been married and buried there. It has been burned and attacked and still it stands.

One of the victims was State Sen. Clementa C. Pinckney, who was also the pastor of church. Pinckney, who took office in 1996, was the youngest Black person in South Carolina’s history to be elected to the state legislature. He was then elected to the State Senate in 2000.

“I would say that Rev. Pinckney was both well known and inspirational,” Allison said. “His place on the State Senate was important, his faith deep and durable and his intelligence sparkling.”

Being so far away from home, Allison uses social media to see what’s happening in Charleston. However, she said the postings on Facebook by locals and news outlets paint a “picture of harmony and peace,” a narrative that’s being orchestrated.

Allison explained her sister and many others are complaining about the “audacity” of white South Carolinians to post pictures of rallies and prayer meetings “where white people and Black people hold hands and make statuses and updates to the effect of ‘See Baltimore? See Ferguson? This is how you respond to racial violence!’ As if to say, ‘Look at how well behaved our Black people are!’”

She is bothered by how some whites are grading the responses of Black people grieving. Allison also said there are rampant conversations about race culture in South Carolina that haven’t happened until now.

“I think I’m feeling the sort of fatigue that comes from disgust and awe,” she said. “But not necessarily the feeling that comes from surprise. Racial tension is everywhere and sometimes as a Black member of the Charleston community it weighs heavily on your thoughts.”

Allison shared that while she may get dirty looks from old racists warning her to stay away, it’s the actions of young racists in her hometown that hurt the most.

“Oftentimes they don’t know they are racist and don’t care to acknowledge their bias,” she said. “They don’t get why calling me ‘exotic’ or ‘sassy’ is uncomfortable or that inquiring whether or not my father is in the home is literally just insulting. And when you try to explain it the response is often, ‘Whoa, there buddy! I’m not a racist!’ When the ugly truth is that they are — just a well meaning one.”

Following the mass murder at Mother Emanuel, the debate to remove the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s Capitol grounds is now at the forefront. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley announced Monday that she will call on state lawmakers to move the Confederate flag from state grounds. Lawmakers are expected to debate the issue and vote in the coming weeks.

“[South Carolina] makes it clear its interests as it flies the Confederate flag,” Allison said. “I’ll remind everyone that this is nothing new. This flag as been flying for hundreds of years. It’s everywhere.”

“Sometimes you feel threatened by it,” she went on. “Other times you forget it’s there, it’s so prominent. It doesn’t always mean the person flying it is racist, but seeing it puts the thought in the back of your mind. Individuals fly the confederate flag all the time and sometimes you come to the shock that your white friends are racist.”

However, Allison has no intention of letting racism impede upon her life.

“Racism leaks over and clouds vision, but no it doesn’t stop you from living your best life, from, as my mom would say, ‘Dancing in the rain, even if it’s lightning two miles away.’”

She also wants to make clear that Charleston means a lot to her.

“I feel warm and fuzzy at the thought of going to the pineapple fountain, and beaches on Kiawah,” she said. “I think about the friendships my parents and I have made with people of different backgrounds than us; I think about some of my white teachers in high school who were amazing educators and pushed me to be the best that I can be.”

*Allison is the name used in the story to protect the identity of the interviewee. 


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  • Greg Thrasher

    I did not care for any of the coverage it was offensive observing Black Americans in that posture….I resented the absence of Black anger being articulated by Black activists in SC…..I tired of Black folks in a prayer/surrender mode ..I tired of the impotency and optics of Black people looking passive and beaten down…..I rejected the nonsense of prayer as being some miracle when prayer did nothing to save the lives of those when they were confronted by a depraved White killer fueled by the ongoing reality of racism in America….Finally I tired of the obligatory White media patronizing coverage form the endless use of the same quotes and images of Black Americans and dead Black civil rights leaders.

    Greg Thrasher
    Plane Ideas
    Alternative Think Tank

    • Tonya Britton

      Greg, you’re an idiot. Why would you resent the absence of anger in a situation that was fueled by anger. Prayer is powerful and without it is surrender! What’s up with the ” I tired” speak? I could do without the same quotes and images, but those dead Black civil rights leaders are the only reason you can spout such stupidity. Hard to believe you’re a Director of anything.

    • I saw their reaction and their posture MUCH differently than you did.

      I saw almost unspeakable nobility in the face of tragedy.

      I saw strength of character that is difficult to describe or comprehend.

      I saw families that lost loved ones, but would not give in to the hate of a deranged killer.
      Instead, they honored their loved ones by living out their legacy so gracefully in the midst of their terrible sadness.

      I saw community coming together regardless of skin color.

      They looked anything but beaten down to me….. Their strength was quiet but resolute.

      I think your prejudice burns so hot you simply can’t see.

      • Greg Thrasher

        Please refrain from attacking me as being prejudice because you do not share my views and opinions.

        Thanks in advance..

        Greg Thrasher
        Plane Ideas
        Alternative Think Tank

    • I tire of it, too. I’m not religious, so prayer means nothing to me and I don’t think it effects change, except it makes believers feel better – good for them.

      I guess I’m too much a person who tired of being bullied long ago. Yeah I want action, but not the kind where people riot and some use another’s tragedy to loot and pillage.

      I grew up watching MLK praying while dogs attacked, and I tired of that quickly. I want an expression of anger and indignation. How dare you treat me this way! But I don’t want violence.

      MLK never spoke to me. And I resented whites appointing him my leader. To me whites’ approval was a real bad sign. How dare they. No-one leads me. And how dare they assume we are all the same and think alike. Passive resistance didn’t speak to me at all.

      I’m older now and can appreciate what he did, however. And cleverness of some of his actions. Hit ’em in the wallets is probably the most powerful weapon that can be used in this profit driven society.

      But I wanted action. I still do. And maybe, just maybe this action was so outrageous that even the racists have to acknowledge the outrageousness of it and out of that realization, we’ll see some action.

      • We’re already seeing some action, and major retailers are driving some of it–Amazon, Sears, Walmart, Ebay, etc. Social change happens when two things occur:

        A. Folks get tired of conditions; and
        B. Somebody loses profit.

        In this case, the State of South Carolina will lose profit from those outside
        tourist dollars if the flag isn’t eventually removed.

        Confederate Flag kitsch is marketed all the time, and all the diehards who worship
        that flag will continue to do so. Rachel Maddow’s show talked about some guy
        who owns a Confederate Flag and memorabilia store.

    • Don’t be fooled by what you see in the media–one Bible-toting, praying “granny”, whose back is bent with age and suffering–is ultimately more powerful than all the supremacist
      hate-cults of the south!

  • I’m really sorry to hear this part, especailly:
    Allison explained her sister and many others are complaining about the “audacity” of white South Carolinians to post pictures of rallies and prayer meetings “where white people and Black people hold hands and make statuses and updates to the effect of ‘See Baltimore? See Ferguson? This is how you respond to racial violence!’ As if to say, ‘Look at how well behaved our Black people are!’”

    What I was seeing I took as wonderful……. people of different backgounds and races holding hands in unity. I didn’t see ANYTHING that looked like white people disrespecting black people the way she describes.

    I think in a time like this that white people and black people (and any other people of good will) SHOULD come together and hold hands in unity.

    It sure seemed to me that those white people were standing in solidarity with their black neighbors and against the atrocity.

    What should they have done?

    Should they have stayed home?

    I haven’t seen anything that looked like a white person saying “Look how well behaved our black people are.”

    It seems misdirected to blame white people who are standing in solidarity with their neighbors in a time of pain.

    God bless the nine victims, and comfort their family and friends.

    • Dan, I don’t think she was complaining about the white people joining hands with black people or saying they should stay at home. The complaint of her relatives and associates is that when people contrast it, specifically to Baltimore and Ferguson, they are really patronizing the black people. Note her last sentence of the paragraph. They are not complaining of the coming together, but that people aren’t noting they are coming together as EQUALS and not that the black people of Charleston are fearful and subservient.

    • The audacity of people who she knows (because she lived they’re all her life) that wouldn’t even touch a black person. Much less hold hands. She sees them as hypocrites. Why did it take such tragedy for you see my humanity. That’s what she means.

  • Did it ever occur to this person that the white people posting pictures of rallies are supporting the community and their unity behind the victims of this horrible murder?

    If they didn’t show up at the rallies hoe would she feel? Damning them for indifference?

    • what appears to be beyond some folks’ grasp is the perception of unity, projected in response to an act of terrorism against fellow citizens, and the absence of meaningful action in other spheres where racism makes an appearance… like 11am on Sundays at their respective [segregated] churches.
      i totally get what Allison was intending to convey. the coverage, whether intended or not, could be perceived as Charleston showing the ‘proper’ way to respond to domestic terrorism. each response, whether in Ferguson, Baltimore, or South Carolina, is intended to seek an end to oppression and injustice.

      • We have to remember that the media selectively captures less than “the tip of the iceberg”–only those events and people that are immediately available and visible.
        The media cannot and does not show us all the marvelous “behind the scenes”
        community activism and those grass roots leaders who organize, inspire, lead
        and push for social change to happen. The media will rarely, if ever, show you
        those churches that are multicultural/multiethnic; nor will they bother to find out
        what communities are doing to push for social change.

  • I’ve lived 5 southern states and in Charleston SC for 9 years. Having recently left, the only thing that I am surprised about is “the where” this happened. Although I was not raised I Charleston I agree with article in total. What most people who are not from Charleston are missing is that there are at least 5 Charlestons: tourist Charleston, old money white Charleston, original white middle class Charleston, transplant white Middle class Charleston and black Charleston. It is rare that those bubbles intersect and thus the nasty underbelly of Charleston continues. This is a sad event and change will only occur if the bubble intersections that are currently occurring can last for more than weekend.

  • Tonya Britton

    I was stationed in Charleston and your right, but you could combine original (born there) white with transplanted white because it’s about the same. I’ve also lived in Fayetteville, NC., Texas and Okla.

  • I get it from many directions. Prayer and religion helps by giving me hope and delivering me from the desire for revenge. But as Greg pointed out it can also present blacks as weak and willing to take anything. Prayer alone will not deliver us. People say that anger and violence is not the answer – I agree. But it is part of the answer. I’m not promoting violence – but anger and violence and rage can communicate the intensity of a situation. I’m grateful for the forgiveness demonstrated by the families because it appealed to whites and helped to motivate them to eliminate the confederate emblems from public places. But I’m equally grateful for the action approach by Bree Newsome who physically took down the flag and by BLM and others who are protesting daily. Dan I’m glad you saw all that sweetness. What else can be done? How about: finding police officers guilty for killing black people, electing people (or running for office yourself) that will support civil rights, firing chiefs of police who support criminal officers, petitions and legal support for voting rights, pushing for funding of education, child care, birth control, mentoring black youth, speaking out against racism everywhere you see it, etc, etc, etc. My point is I really appreciate whites holding our hand – really I do. But if you take solid action it’s worth much more.

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