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White Privilege: No Pain, No Gain!

Tom Turnipseed

The Confederate Flag debate in South Carolina and shocking racial disparities in our criminal justice system have the potential to inflict necessary pain on 400 years of white privilege. The rebel flag is the most visible historical symbol of white privilege. A comprehensive report just released revealing that black youth are 6 times more likely to be locked up than white youths charged with similar crimes confirms the totality of white privilege in the United States. Recognizing the continuing scandal of economic and social oppression of African-Americans is very painful to white privilege but without the truth, there can be no reconciliation. No pain, no gain!

Those of moderate, mainstream white privilege like our Governor, our business leaders and their friends are feeling the pain and want to end the "divisive debate" about the flag with a "compromise" now. Even some of the less privileged whites who deify Dixie and "honor their heritage" by working to keep the Confederate Flag flying high at the State House are beginning to feel the pain as the debate unravels their myths of "heritage" symbolized by the flag.

My dictionary defines "heritage" as "property that descends to an heir", and "something possessed as a result of one's natural situation or birth." These definitions describe what happened to black slaves when their white slave master died and his heirs inherited them. Since the Civil War, white privilege, a/k/a white supremacy, has been handed down "as a result of one's natural situation or birth". Descendants of black slaves have continued to suffer terror, discrimination and economic oppression as a result of the heritage of white privilege.

The most visible symbol of white privilege has been the Confederate Battle Flag. It was waved by Confederate soldiers defending the "peculiar institution" of chattel slavery, by night riders terrorizing blacks after Reconstruction, by Klan lynch mobs in the first half of the twentieth century, by angry red-necks assaulting freedom fighters during the civil rights struggle, and by the Grand Dragon of the Klan as he exhorted his followers to burn black churches in 1996.

The poor, less privileged whites who have waved the Confederate Flag in the front lines of the battle for white supremacy are also victims of racism. We took the depositions of the Grand Dragon and Imperial Wizard of the Klan group in a civil action in which the Klan was found liable for 37 million dollars in damages in 1998 for burning a black church in Clarendon County, South Carolina. They revealed their socio-economic status which was almost as substandard as poor African-American's.

For 400 years in the South such poor white folks have suffered from a lack of educational and economic opportunity and inferior health care like poor black people, but have been taught by their "heritage" of whiteness to blame their problems on African-Americans who are even greater victims of such racism. Their whiteness is almost their only source of status and self worth. The chief economic benefactors of this race-based division are business interests who maintain a cheap labor market because poor working-class whites refuse to organize politically or join labor unions with even poorer working-class blacks. So business leaders want to end this painful flag debate.

The Senate "compromise" that relocates the flag to a position of prominence in front of the State House steps is not even a small step towards righting the wrongs of 400 years of racism in South Carolina. We must launch legislative initiatives to repair the damage. As we debate moving a symbolic piece of cloth we should debate moving massive amounts of money for public schools, health care and economic development into the chronically neglected,. poor areas of our state.

We must also reform racial profiling and racial injustice in our criminal justice system. South Carolina's juvenile justice system is a microcosm of the national situation reported in today's media. Nationally, black kids charged with violent crimes are 9 times more likely to be sent to prison than white kids, and black youth charged with drug offenses are 48 times more likely to go to prison than whites.

To reach racial reconciliation we must end white privilege.

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Tom Turnipseed

Tom Turnipseed

Tom Turnipseed is an attorney, writer and peace activist in Columbia, SC. His blog is

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