Recently, I have become fascinated by the differences between states. We are one country, but each state has a different political climate, a different mix of cultures, and a different host of challenges.
South Carolina is a naturally beautiful state, with a rich culture and proud heritage. However, its challenges include a failing educational system that consistently ranks near the bottom and an enduring legacy of poverty. These challenges cannot be meaningfully improved without considering the history of our state and the impediments to political change which exist as a result.
The Palmetto State’s current political system is in large part a result of the state constitution of 1895. It has often been said that the constitution was drafted, in part, to disenfranchise African Americans, and the historical context of the time drives home this point.
African Americans first began participating in South Carolina government during Reconstruction, at which time they comprised a majority of the state’s population. During Reconstruction, African Americans even reached a majority in the lower House of the legislature.
Ben Tillman, who ran for South Carolina governor in 1890, had as his stated goal “the practical disenfranchisement of the Negro.” The New York Times quoted him as saying, on several occasions, that this policy was the “only solution to the race problem in the state.”
After the new constitution was enacted, blacks were systematically excluded from the political process through measures such as literacy tests and poll taxes. The denial of political rights, together with segregated substandard schools, created a permanent underclass largely defined along racial lines.
Today, much of South Carolina’s societal ills and poor nationwide rankings (in terms of health and educational issues) can be traced to our stratified society. South Carolina’s large black population accounts for much of the state’s poverty, high incarceration rates, and poor health statistics.
A portion of the general populace is doing very well, but much of that populace can rely on already good school systems to maintain or improve their lot. With education serving as the main route out of poverty for many (the state lottery notwithstanding), the demographics of South Carolina are unlikely to change unless there is considerable political will to improve public education.
A recent symposium held by the Charleston School of Law underscored the difficulty in creating political change in a state where the constitution is designed to concentrate power in the hands of the legislature and maintain the status quo.
Until Carroll Campbell’s restructuring efforts in the late 1980s, the South Carolina governor could not even appoint his own cabinet. The Budget and Control Board, a unique South Carolina creation, strips the governor of the budgetary authority held by chief executives of other states.
Additionally, the funding formula for public education statewide is such that the Corridor of Shame can exist in the lower, rural part of the state, while school districts in Spartanburg and Greenville have high school facilities that are the envy of some colleges.
Unfortunately, there is little pressure on the legislature to change any of this. The current system of legislative districting assures us that we have largely homogeneous districts that rarely vote out incumbents or change party. Each legislator has a marked interest in satisfying the whims of his or her constituents, however extreme, with little regard for the well-being of the whole state.
The system now is too slanted toward preserving power in the hands of a few who have no political incentive to share power. They understandably see any reform as against their own interest.
South Carolina’s progress, in education and per capita income, will not come at the expense of whites versus blacks or Republicans versus Democrats, but rather with a grassroots commitment to reform. Until those interested in improving the state become actively involved, change will be slow in coming.
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