News release: We must act now to dismantle structural racism

Katie Quine
Marketing and Communications Manager
The Riley Institute at Furman University

Commentary: We must act now to dismantle structural racism

In large cities and small towns across America and around the globe, hundreds of thousands have marched in protest of racial discrimination and the police killings of black Americans. Galvanized by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and a litany of others, this wrenching, passionate and desperate outcry over racial injustice comes at the fifth anniversary of the murders of nine parishioners at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston by a white supremacist.

Writing at the time we said: “On the evening of June 17, 2015, a hate crime took place at a prayer meeting at Mother Emanuel AME Church near Marion Square in Charleston. The absolutely horrid nature of the crime, the cold-blooded assassination of innocent people solely because they were black — all under the ideology of white supremacy — shocked us all. It tore at the social fabric we all depend on to carry out our daily lives in a civilized way in our communities and our country.”

These horrific killings led to the promise of serious attention in this state to the causes and impact of racism. At the time we wrote, “let us begin to work deliberately to effect systemic change and to build a more inclusive South Carolina.”

Yet, five years after Mother Emanuel, things have gotten worse, much worse. The call for systemic change lost in a rising tide of record highs in the stock market, low unemployment and the distractions of an increasingly divided national political debate. Add to this now the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has helped drive an increase in race-based prejudice, racist behavior and violent attacks on black Americans.

Emanating in large part from the attempt to justify owning slaves, racism in our state has been especially toxic, its manifestations leading to inter-generational poverty, low levels of educational attainment, health problems and sending too many South Carolinians along the poverty-to-prison pipeline. Racism is morally and ethically wrong, and has created a seemingly permanent underclass with devastating impacts for many black South Carolinians and economic consequences for all. It prevents many black South Carolinians from being part of the economic mainstream of our state, from aggregating wealth, and from being part of the educated and productive workforce so needed for South Carolina’s modern technologically based economy.

In South Carolina racism is both endemic and systemic, its roots linked in inequities in law enforcement and the justice system, health and health care, economic opportunity and, most importantly, public education.

We know that the key to long-term success to eliminating inequity is in education. More than 50% of public school children in South Carolina are poverty stricken or poor, according to federal guidelines. A hugely disproportionate number of those are black children in severely underfunded school districts. Without the advantages that more fortunate children have, including adequate health care and access to computers and internet at home, they are more likely to fall behind their peers and drop out.

We already know what works to create the circumstances for all children to graduate from high school prepared for success in the workplace or in higher education.

At the heart of this is the need to work together to reform the state school funding formula. This formula fosters ZIP code roulette, the reality that the relative wealth of the local tax base dictates whether or not schools receive sufficient local resources to bolster insufficient state funding and provide children even a minimally adequate education. Equally important is fully funding proven programs that engage students and foster success: universal early childhood education, attracting and keeping high-quality teachers in every classroom, after school and summer learning programs that keep students in school and at grade level, and competency-based and project-based learning models that capture and motivate students and teach 21st-century learning skills.

Five years ago, after the horrors of the Mother Emanuel killings, we called for serious conversations about racism in our state and for systemic change. We must have those conversations now. We must now work collaboratively, as one state, to address the structural inequalities that support and promote racism. In doing so, we can close gaps on existing inequities, build a foundation of greater fairness and justice, open the economic and social mainstream to all, and strengthen our state and our democracy.

Dick Riley is a former governor of South Carolina and former U.S. secretary of education under President Bill Clinton. Dr. Donald Gordon is executive director of Furman University’s Riley Institute.