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Charleston’s slavery apology just empty symbolism

Southern city: Charleston, South Carolina

The South Carolina city of Charleston’s two-page apology for enslaving black people and terrorising and treating them as second-class citizens during Jim Crow, ought to be crumpled up and tossed into the trash.

Supporters have cheered the city council’s resolution and called it an important step towards racial healing. On social media, some people are saying there should be no apology for slavery because no one alive today should be held responsible for those past wrongs. Meanwhile, others are saying white Southerners should be praised for finally acknowledging more than 150 years since emancipation that slavery and overt racial discrimination of the past was wrong.

But Charleston should not get any credit for its belated regrets over enslaving, raping, terrorising, lynching and breaking up the families of its black citizens’ ancestors. American racism is grounded on centuries of meticulous indulgence, practice, research, government policies, premeditated intent, routine behaviour, tunnel vision and cognitive dissonance. The legacy of those centuries of racist brutality still infects every facet of life in the city, and until white supremacy is truly dismantled, apologies such as this one will be nothing but empty gestures.

Eight months ago, the Avery Research Centre for African-American History and Culture released an 80-page racial disparities report that I wrote. The report revealed that Charleston and its surrounding county are home to some of the most pervasive racial disparities in the country. The numbers demonstrate the furtiveness and perniciousness of white supremacy that gets reproduced in Charleston’s halls of political power, classrooms, board meetings, healthcare establishments, real estate and labour practices, policing, eco-hazards, food access, low-wage job market, and dismantling of unions, and through a generation of young people growing up in neighbourhoods where they feel hopeless and demonised.

Rapid development and increasing property taxes have reduced the size of downtown Charleston’s black communities and eroded black culture over the past 30 years. This storied port city of more than 130,000 people is one of the fastest-gentrifying cities in the South. Poor black people have been displaced from their traditional neighbourhoods to make way for new residents, mostly white and wealthier. Meanwhile, the nearby Gullah people have lost untold acres to hoggish developers. Over the past two decades, Charleston has witnessed significant public and private investments, soaring housing prices and demographic changes that have left low-income residents with little refuge.

This rapid change has been ruthless and unapologetic, and it has yielded what many black residents told me they believe to be a racist and deliberate concentrated impoverishment of the region’s black communities by city planners, politicians, business leaders, developers and probably some of the same folks patting themselves on the back for issuing a hollow apology for slavery.

The economic gulf between black and white residents that was present in Charleston during the civil rights era has not disappeared. In 2015, the median income for white families was more than double that of black families — $64,553 for whites compared with $29,799 for blacks. The black unemployment rate remains more than double the white unemployment rate — 8.5 per cent for blacks compared with 3 per cent for whites. Fifty-six per cent of the black population has low or no access to healthy foods. Forty-two per cent of black children aged under 18 are living below the poverty line, compared with 11 per cent of white children.

White women make up the majority of the teaching staff in the Charleston County School District. Of the district’s 3,312 teachers, 71 per cent are white women and 14 per cent are white men, compared with 12 per cent black women and less than 1 per cent black men. Black students make up more than 40 per cent of the district’s school population — although they represent 83 per cent of students given suspensions, which may not be unrelated to the demographic mismatch.

The Charleston County School District is facing federal lawsuits for patterns of discrimination against black employees and students. Hundreds of students, most of them black, have been funnelled from schools into prisons for regular adolescent behaviours.

Low-income black neighbourhoods are disproportionately exposed to toxic environmental hazards that include noxious incinerators, landfills, Superfund sites, Toxic Release Inventory facilities, and sewer and water treatment plants. These hazardous-waste sites are predominantly located in black communities.

Data from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control shows how the disproportionate burden of exposure to these harmful conditions has resulted in adverse health outcomes that include birth defects, diabetes, urinary tract disorders, eczema, anaemia, cancer, stroke, and speech and hearing difficulties in young children. These stressors, coupled with inadequate health-promoting infrastructure — supermarkets, parks, open spaces, medical facilities — reduce the community’s ability to defend itself against the differential burden and exposure to eco-hazards.

There is also a hidden holocaust of black infants across the county dying annually at a rate of more than five times that of white infants. The infant mortality rate for whites stands at less than 2 per cent, compared with a little more than 11 per cent for blacks.

Black people are more likely than whites to be stopped and searched, shocked by stun guns and incarcerated by police in the Charleston area. The North Charleston Police Department has a documented record of misconduct including incidents of excessive force. Black residents have a disproportionately higher share of citizen complaints against police, filing 60 per cent of complaints even though they make up only 47 per cent of the North Charleston population. White residents filed 33 per cent of citizen complaints, compared with their estimated population of 41 per cent. Millions of dollars in civil rights settlements have been paid to victims of police brutality.

The city council’s resolution pledges that officials will work with businesses and organisations to achieve racial equality. More than $25 million has been invested in a forthcoming African-American museum, now that actual black people have been almost completely pushed out of Charleston’s historic core. Since the release of our report, there has been a lot of lip service but no measurable action on our very specific policy recommendations to reverse centuries-old systems of power that have perpetually prevented most black residents from attaining the wealth and opportunities of their white counterparts, although their enslaved ancestors built the city.

Our report recommended that the city and county develop a racial-equity framework for all legislation and regulations that may have a disparate impact on low-income or communities of colour. To combat chronic poverty, we recommended that officials address barriers to work, including expensive and unreliable transportation systems and unaffordable child care; deploy public awareness campaigns to educate the public about predatory lending practices that target low-income people; audit and address the hiring practices to dismantle systemic barriers to hiring qualified black candidates; establish summer employment programmes for low-income teens; reform school disciplinary procedures and diversify the teaching and administrative staff, and expand de-escalation training for all levels of law enforcement officers and eliminate policies and practices that result in disproportionate arrests of people of colour.

We also recommended that city officials work to preserve and build more affordable housing and enact laws that prevent involuntary displacement of tenants from low-income black neighbourhoods.

Charleston residents and activists have told me they are frustrated with the foot-dragging on these recommendations. Now Charleston is one of the cities that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson is targeting for rent increases on low-income households who get federal housing assistance. This could mean homelessness for thousands of residents.

An apology for slavery will not pay the rent. It will not improve health outcomes, prevent discriminatory practices in education and employment, keep black people from getting brutalised or killed by police, or get rid of the eco-hazards. An apology will not change the day-to-day realities of trauma and stress strangling black lives.

Apologies are symbolic. They ease guilt on the part of the people who have benefited from white supremacy every day of their lives. White Charleston and America, writ large, do not want to own this nation’s ugly racist past or examine all the ways that systemic racism still gives them advantages over black people. Racial justice is not a zero-sum game. White communities do not have to be deprived of rights and resources to equalise communities of colour.

White Americans’ determined failure to recognise the origins of systemic racism and its historical evolution is exhausting. Apologising without plans for restorative justice is psychic therapy for whites. Black Americans should think better of ourselves and demand more — because this nation has clearly shown that it is not genuinely dedicated to dismantling white supremacy.

Stacey Patton is an assistant professor of multimedia journalism at Morgan State University and the author of Spare The Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America