Redefining the problem as a means of remaining viable

I pass the above billboard, paid for by the National Fair Housing Alliance, each day on my way to work. It brings a number of issues to mind.

(Begin disclaimer.) As a caveat to keep the easily offended from being seized with apoplexy, I understand discrimination still exists. It likely always will. This is not an attempt to diminish or disregard the impact of discrimination in housing. (End disclaimer.)

That said, the billboard is an appeal to emotion, and not a very good one at that.

The average 6-year-old boy’s “dream home,” at least from what I can recall, is a pillow fort made from couch cushions.

Any bank making a loan to a 6-year old would, of course, be hauled before regulators and hit with sanctions, unless the 6-year-old was a pop music wonderkid, ala Michael Jackson, 1965.

Finally, I know of very few recent instances of individuals or organizations discriminating against others when it comes to selling homes. It seems illogical to turn down someone else’s money when you’re trying to sell your home.

A glance at the website for National Fair Housing Alliance – a Washington, DC, operation which touts itself as “the only national organization dedicated solely to ending discrimination in housing” – shows very little actual activity in this area. And it’s safe to say that this organization, begun in 1988, would be promoting such cases in order to rationalize its existence. Under “enforcement” is the following:

That means over the past year, the only activities that this entity has seen fit to post to the “enforcement” section of its website are lawsuits that it has filed. No resolutions of cases. And filing a lawsuit hardly qualifies as “enforcement.”

If one looks at the NFHA’s “news & media” section, one finds press releases for the following:

There are also press releases announcing a settlement between Bank of America and the National Fair Housing Alliance Reach in a mortgage loan case, and the Supreme Court upholding the right of cities to sue banks whose practices harm the municipalities and their residents.

The last two have a direct tie to the NFHA’s mission; the first two seem a bit off the reservation for an organization dedicated to ending discrimination in housing.

Finally, consider this from the NFHA’s annual Fair Housing Trends Report, issued April 19, 2017, which documents “continued patterns of discrimination and segregation and highlighting fair housing trends in 2016.”

“We are one year away from commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Fair Housing Act which was passed just seven days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April, 1968,” said Shanna Smith, president and CEO of NFHA. “Some advances have been made in opening up neighborhoods to everyone; however, people of color, persons with disabilities and other marginalized groups continue to be unlawfully shut out of many neighborhoods that provide quality schools and health care, fresh food, employment opportunities, quality and affordable credit, small business investment, and other opportunities that affect life outcomes.”

Some advances? There were many, many neighborhoods from which minorities were excluded in 1968, either de jure or de facto, and there wasn’t a great deal they could do about it. Those that fought against such discrimination were often harassed, and those who dared move into white neighborhoods were many times treated extremely harshly, even violently. Those actions, as near as I can tell, are largely absent today.

Were such actions taking place, the media would highlight them in great detail.

If people of color, persons with disabilities and other marginalized groups are unlawfully shut out of neighborhoods today, there are remedies that authorities are more than willing to employ, and rightfully so.

If, however, groups such as the NFHA feel the need to downplay success in opening up housing opportunities for all so that they can continue to garner funding and have a viable reason to remain in operation, that doesn’t speak very highly about it as an organization.

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Savannah’s Carnegie Library a testament to perseverance

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It’s been slightly more than a century since the Carnegie Library in Savannah, Ga., opened, offering increased access to books, learning and knowledge for blacks at the height of the Jim Crow era.

Among those who called the library home were James Allen McPherson, the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Industrialist Andrew Carnegie provided funding for the construction of nearly 1,700 public libraries across the United States between 1886 and 1923. Carnegie, a self-made man, believed in giving to those who were interested in helping themselves.

After he became one of the richest men in America, Carnegie began providing funding for libraries, initially in his native Scotland, later in his adopted state of Pennsylvania, then across the nation and other parts of the world.

savannah-27-2016-041In areas where segregation was in effect, particularly the Deep South, Carnegie often had separate libraries built for minorities.

All Carnegie libraries were built according to a formula that required financial commitments from the towns which received donations.

The black residents of Savannah raised $3,000 to show their commitment, and the Carnegie Corp. contributed $12,000, according to a history of the library written on its 100th anniversary.

The Colored Library Association of Savannah had been formed in 1906 by 11 men who established the Library for Colored Citizens. Originally operating from a doctor’s office, the founders stocked the library from personal libraries and public donations of books and periodicals.

In 1913, the group successfully petitioned the Carnegie Corp. for funds to build a permanent structure, which was completed in 1915 on East Henry Street in Savannah.

The structure is one of the few examples in Georgia of what is colloquially known as Prairie School architecture, a late 19th- and early 20th-century style that included flat or hipped roofs with broad overhanging eaves and windows grouped in horizontal bands.

The structure features granite steps framed by large piers with sandstone orbs on small pedestals. The staircase is flanked by four tiered brick walls, and the corners of the piers, the band over the second-story windows and brick cornice which divides the two floors feature dark glazed bricks.

The Savannah Carnegie Library is one of just two Carnegie library projects that were built for blacks in Georgia. The other was in Atlanta and was demolished in 1960.

The Savannah City Library system was integrated in 1963 and the Savannah Carnegie library itself fell into some disrepair. In the late 1990s, its roof fell in.

In 2004, after more than $1.3 million was raised in private and public funds, the structure was reopened after being remodeled and renovated.

Among those on hand for the reopening was Thomas, a Savannah native who joined the US Supreme Court in 1991.

Thomas told the Savannah Morning News at the time of the reopening that as a youngster he was often told, “’The man’ ain’t going to let you do nothing.”

But he recalled that Carnegie librarians had a more positive message: “If you get (knowledge) here, no one can take it away.”

“The librarians made it all possible,” he added.

How the tyranny of the petty minded can infect a society

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Like most US states, South Carolina has elected some bad governors over the years. Pitchfork Ben Tillman, an avowed racist and demagogue who did a great deal to divide the state in the late 19th century, is currently getting some much-needed scrutiny, but one of his protegés, Cole Blease, never fails to amaze when his career is analyzed.

Blease was a self-proclaimed pro-lynching, anti-black education politician who was cut from the same cloth as Tillman. He was elected to the state’s highest office in 1910 through his ability “to play on race, religion and class prejudices,” appealing especially to South Carolina’s farmers and mill workers, according to Ernest Lander’s work, “A History of South Carolina 1865-1960.”

Blease acquired such a bad reputation that he was said to represent the worst aspects of Jim Crow and Ben Tillman, a noxious combination if there ever was one. Blease, for example, is said to have once buried the severed finger of a lynched black man in the South Carolina gubernatorial garden in Columbia.

He was not only doggedly political, but arrogant about it, as well.

In early February 1911, less than a month after taking office, Blease stated publicly that he wouldn’t appoint anyone but friends to public office if he could help it.

The matter came to a head after a judge elected in Richland County, where Columbia is located, did not qualify in time to take office immediately, and a short-term intermediary was needed.

The Richland County Bar Association endorsed Duncan J. Ray as a special judge, and Ira B. Jones, chief justice the SC Supreme Court, wrote the governor recommending and requesting the appointment of Ray, adding that this was “the course prescribed by the law, as the statute governing special judges says they shall be appointed by the governor upon the recommendation of Supreme Court,” according to an article in the Feb. 9, 1911, edition of the Bamberg Herald.

“However, the governor had already taken the bit in his teeth and appointed F.J. Caldwell, of Newberry, to preside, and when the Chief Justice wrote him recommending Mr. Ray, he replied that he would not appoint anybody but his friends to public office,” the paper added.

Blease made no apologies for injecting politics directly into the judiciary system.

“My friends,” he said, “are to receive some consideration from this administration. I do not expect to appoint my enemies to office upon the recommendation of anybody unless it be that I cannot find a friend who is competent and worthy of the position.”

The (Columbia) State newspaper, begun in 1891 as a response to Tillman and his politics, took Blease to task. Continue reading

Life experience trumps popular platitudes regarding race

Church

This past Saturday found me looking for a long-vanished church in what was once the town of Helena, SC.

Helena, subsumed years ago by the county seat of Newberry, is a predominantly African-American area with a couple of interesting and decidedly disparate claims to history: It is the birthplace of civil rights activist Frank J. Toland Sr. and, conversely, was where noted racial demagogue Cole Blease served as mayor in the late 19th century before moving on to the South Carolina state legislature, the governor’s office and finally the US Senate.

There are almost no records of Helena Church available on the Internet, and all I had to go on was information found on a genealogy site titled “Newberry County GenWeb SC Cemetery Project,” which lists numerous county cemeteries, along with addresses and GPS coordinates if that data is available.

For the old Helena Church, the information included GPS coordinates and the words “S/A Browns Chapel.” I don’t know what “S/A” refers to, but I am familiar with a Brown Chapel, an African Methodist Episcopal church in the Helena area of Newberry, sometimes identified as Browns Chapel.

I have been told of cases of some older white churches abandoning their structures once congregations dwindled to a size that they were no longer a viable house of worship, at which point a black church would take over the building.

Wondering if Brown Chapel was the old Helena Church, or built on the site of the latter, I decided to pay it a visit.

I pulled into the crushed-gravel parking lot about 2 p.m. and saw a couple of cars parked near the church. About 30 feet behind and to the right of the church I noticed an old gravestone standing alone and pulled near it. At the same time, another car with two older black women pulled into the lot.

I got out of my car to take a closer look at the grave marker, and the two women, having parked about 75 feet away, inquired from their car if they could help me. I walked over and explained to them that I was looking for the old Helena Church and asked if I was in the right place.

They immediately asked me my name and requested my identification. Somewhat surprised, I complied.

As they wrote down my name and driver’s license number, the pair, both of whom were in their mid- to late-60s, questioned me about why I was looking around. I told them I was interested in a certain individual, a German immigrant who had died around 1912 and who had been buried in the Helena Church cemetery.

Peering at my driver’s license, they noticed that I was from a town about 20 miles south of the church, and asked why I was in Newberry County. I explained, politely, that I had read old newspaper reports that had said the individual I was searching for had been buried in Helena Church and according to information I’d found on the Internet, I thought that the church may have once been at this location.

They explained to me that Brown Chapel only had graves of black parishioners, but suggested I try another site about a mile away.

I thanked them and as one of the pair handed me back my identification, she replied, “Well, we can’t be too cautious.”

The comment was an apparent reference to the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston earlier this month by a 21-year-old white nut job that claimed nine black lives.

I wasn’t sure what to say to that, so I thanked them again and returned to my car. Needless to say, I found the experience unsettling.

A quick description of yours truly: Bespectacled white male, 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, 50 years old. I was wearing a t-shirt, nice shorts, dockers shoes and a Santa Clara University baseball cap. I can’t speak for others, but I hardly see myself as a threatening individual.

Were the two women out of line questioning me because I was white? Some would say yes.

Would they have asked for my ID if I were a black male; were they insinuating that given my color I needed to be watched more closely; do they believe there is increased chance of similar white attacks on black churches occurring?

I don’t know. I didn’t feel comfortable asking any of those questions.

There is a segment of society that decries the fact that, according to them, the most segregated hour in America takes place on Sunday morning, during church services. Personally, I’ve always felt that folks should go to whatever church they want, with the understanding that no one should be turned away from a house of worship because of something as arbitrary as skin color or sexual preference.

That said, after Saturday’s experience, I believe my presence during an AME or CME church service would be met with trepidation. But could I blame a congregation for being anxious if one day, less than a month after the events at Emanuel, an unfamiliar white male showed up at a black church service?

Doesn’t the human body provide protection by sending up internal red flags when something seems amiss?

As I thought about the encounter at Brown Chapel, I realized that both of the women I had talked with were likely born in the late 1940s or early 1950s. They grew up in the segregated South and had to deal with all that went along with that world.

I, on the other hand, was born in California, on the day after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. I’ve lived in the South for many years, but no matter how much I read and how many people I talk with, I would never be able to fully understand the experiences these two older black women went through.

I have trouble understanding how they could be suspicious of me; they might have countered by stating that they had trouble understanding how I couldn’t understand why might be suspicious.

If, as it has been said, we are all products of our environment, and every person we meet, every new adventure we experience and every book we read reshapes us, even if ever so slightly, and makes us the unique beings we are, I can only hope that my manner and disposition left those two lades changed, and for the better.

 

Deep debate cast aside for quick decisions based on ‘perception’

FILE -- The Confederate battle flag flies near the South Carolina State Capitol building in Columbia in this file framegrab.

Over the past few days it has been stated repeatedly that the Confederate flag should be removed from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds because it’s a racist symbol – no matter what its advocates claim – because “perception is reality.”

Certainly the Confederate battle flag was misappropriated in the 1950s and ‘60s by groups opposed to the Civil Rights movement. That these groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, also made ample use of the Stars and Stripes, seems to be of small concern to those who would like to see the Confederate flag placed in a museum.

While there’s plenty of room for debate about the role of the Confederate flag in public life, if the basis for one’s arguments includes “perception is reality,” then one is starting from a position of weakness.

History has shown that the idea that perception can be both erroneous and damaging.

Black Codes and Jim Crow laws were enforced in part because blacks were perceived by many as being inferior to whites. Most ex-slaves, thanks to law and/or custom, had never been taught to read or write. They were therefore perceived as being less intelligent than whites, even though the playing field was never close to being level.

This perception continues to hold currency even today among some, who mistakenly believe that blacks as a group don’t have the capacity to keep pace with whites and some other ethnic groups, while overlooking the fact that in many areas where African-Americans make up a significant percentage of the population substandard schooling and a history of state indifference to education are the real culprits.

Along those same lines, blacks were perceived well into the 20th century as lacking the educational skills necessary for college. At the time of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, only about 10,000 American blacks – one in 1,000 – were college educated, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. Today, more than 4.5 million blacks hold a four-year college degree.

Consider also that blacks who volunteered or were drafted into the US military were discriminated against for many decades because of the perception that they were suited only for “heavy lifting” rather than positions that relied on brainpower.

At the outset of the Civil War, neither free blacks nor escaped slaves were allowed to enlist in the Union Army. The prevailing view among Union officers was that the black man lacked mental ability, discipline and courage, and could never be trained to fight like the white soldier. It would take the better part of two years before white military leaders, desperate for troops, consented to the use of black soldiers, enabling this error to be disproved.

Up into World War I, black troops were often given thankless tasks that white soldiers sought to avoid and racial segregation in the US military remained in place until after World War II.

During the latter conflict, the Navy assigned most who did enlist to mess duty and the Marines barred blacks entirely until 1942. The military as a whole held to the “perception” that blacks weren’t as good at “soldiering” as whites.

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Carnegie Libraries: the bequest that continues to benefit

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Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie provided funding for the construction of nearly 1,700 public libraries across the United States between 1886 and 1923.

Reading and libraries played a key role in Carnegie’s life, particularly during his childhood in Scotland and his teenage years in Pennsylvania. While working as telegraph operator for the Pittsburgh office of the Ohio Telegraph Co. beginning at just age 16, Carnegie borrowed books from Col. James Anderson, who opened his personal library of 400 volumes to working boys each Saturday night.

Carnegie, a self-made man, believed in giving to those who were interested in helping themselves.

After he became one of the richest men in America, he began providing funding for libraries, initially in his native Scotland, later in his adopted state of Pennsylvania, then across the nation and other parts of the world.

All Carnegie libraries were built according to a formula that required financial commitments from the towns which received donations. Carnegie required recipients to:

  • Demonstrate the need for a public library;
  • Provide the building site;
  • Annually provide 10 percent of the cost of the library’s construction to support its operation; and,
  • Provide free service to all.

In areas where segregation was the de facto rule, Carnegie often had separate libraries built for minorities.

The Carnegie Library shown above is in Union, SC. It was built in 1905 at a cost of $10,000 and is one of 14 libraries Carnegie libraries funded in South Carolina.

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Society not culpable for actions of those who commit heinous acts

Police tape is seen outside the Emanuel AME Church, after a mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church the night before  in Charleston, South Carolina on June 18, 2015. Police captured a white suspect in a mass killing at one of the oldest black churches in the United States, the latest gun massacre to leave the country reeling. Police detained 21-year-old Dylann Roof, shown wearing the flags of defunct white supremacist regimes in pictures taken from social media, after nine churchgoers were shot dead. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

As a South Carolinian, the murder Wednesday night of nine black men and women at a historic Charleston church by a white man, an attack that appears to have had strong racial motivations, has been, to say the least, extremely disheartening.

My Facebook feed has been filled with a great deal of anguish among friends about this senseless act. As a former journalist, many of those I’m connected to see things from a different political perspective. I lean toward a libertarian stand, partly because I don’t have much faith in political parties and partly because I like to be left alone. Journalists, certainly in the US, tend to be of a more liberal bent, on the whole.

That said, I recognize the need for law and order, and the need for society to function in a cohesive manner. I also believe to some degree we are all our brother’s keepers; I just don’t believe that fact needs to be codified.

That said, Facebook friends are wringing their hands about the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, with many coming to the conclusion that we are all responsible.

One linked to a column by an Atlanta Constitution editor that ran after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in September 1963, killing four black girls. In that column, Gene Patterson said all Southerners were responsible by having created a climate for child-killing, thereby encouraging racists who didn’t know better.

Given what went on in the Deep South during Segregation, that may well have been true.

Late yesterday, a former co-worker said we today are guilty of the same:

“A flag that is a racist symbol, an offensive joke, an ugly fraternity chant, the N-word, disrespect for a president, black face paint at a party, and even referring to young, black males as “thugs” or “animals” when they mess up – standing by and accepting these things without taking a stand is wrong. We all share in the guilt. We just don’t know who is listening and who is close enough to the edge to decide that slaughtering black men and women in a church is a noble thing to do.”

I took time this morning to disagree, pointing my remarks toward my acquaintance:

I’m going to voice a contrarian view in that I disagree with the contention that we’re all responsible for this heinous act. The folks that I know, and I pretty sure the ones you know, don’t engage in use of the N-word, ugly fraternity chants or put on black face at parties. Goodness knows there’s plenty of political vitriol, no matter which party holds the Oval Office, but I also don’t think your friends or mine disrespect the current occupant simply because of his race. I certainly hope mine don’t. Thuggery and animalistic behavior, sadly, can be found among all races, as anyone who has lived in the northeast and, like myself, been attacked by drunken white louts for no reason. Should we not use the term at all for fear someone somewhere may attach it to a specific group of people? An example of where the word “thug” would apply is among those who use the Confederate flag, which has different meanings to different people, to intimidate. No doubt this individual didn’t come to be the person he is on his own; no one lives in a vacuum. But my parents didn’t rear me to be anything like this individual and I’m not bringing up my children in an atmosphere that sees intolerance, bigotry and prejudice as acceptable. Blaming these actions on society as a whole waters down this individual’s culpability. He committed these deviant actions for his own reasons. We’re not responsible for his actions; all we can do is pray for those affected and do our best to make the world a better place so that this sort of thing doesn’t happen again.

Sometimes we need to recognize that a bad apple is just that – a bad apple. The South of 2015 is very different from the South of 1963. Imperfect? Oh, yes. At least today people of good will are no longer afraid to stand up and made their voices heard.

(Top: Historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, where nine individuals were killed and three wounded Wednesday night.)