By now you may have heard about or seen the incendiary exchange that was caught on video when a black television reporter from Charlotte was called the “n-word” by a young white man on the sidewalk here in downtown Charleston. The reporter was on an assignment doing a story on the cleanup after Hurricane Matthew earlier this month, when he came upon a young man sitting near the cathedral of St. John the Baptist on Broad Street. Apparently the man called the reporter a racial epithet, and the reporter asked him to repeat it on camera. With cameras rolling, the white man told the black reporter why he had the absolute right to call him the n-word and why he was superior to the reporter who had descended from slaves. The whole incident made the cover of the Washington Post under the headline: “Black broadcaster confronts hate in Charleston.”
It was a stark contrast to the glowing coverage Charleston usually gets as North America’s friendliest city, or the world’s best place to visit, or the one place that black people don’t riot when a black man is shot by police.
To be sure, it’s very unfair to paint Charleston as a racially intolerant city based on a single black reporter’s exchange with some burnout who was arrested for disorderly conduct and possession of a glass crack pipe. If anything, that was probably the shocker that could have drawn headlines in many people’s eyes, that there are white people in this country who actually smoke crack. The article detailed the very unpleasant confrontation, and sought to portray the incident into some larger indictment of Charleston as a racially intolerant city. Drawing symbolism from the Dylann Roof shooting which occurred right around the corner, the reporter told the Post, “I have interviewed members of the Klan face to face, and they have never stooped to that level of vulgarity. Charleston’s racial history, like that of other cities, isn’t pretty and recent events have only reinforced that.” After reading the article, one might be led to believe that you’re just as likely to get shot as to get called the n-word if you’re black in Charleston.
But Charleston isn’t necessarily any more racist of a city than Charlotte, New York, or Boston. Just because a black reporter can get verbally accosted by a white crackhead, doesn’t mean the city deserves the searing expose it received in the Washington Post. At the same time, Charleston isn’t necessarily a racial nirvana simply because it didn’t erupt in violence after the Walter Scott shooting as Ferguson and Baltimore did.
The truth about assessing the level of racial intolerance in any community goes much deeper than any single encounter a person of color may have within a city or how the city responds to a racial crisis. As City Paper columnist Shani Gilchrist recently articulated so eloquently, one can start by looking at the level of social integration in a community to get a sense of how far it has progressed beyond a segregated past. Similarly, although the Confederate Flag was recently taken down from in front of the statehouse, the fact that it remained there for so long and was so vigorously defended says much more about our state than any chance encounter a black reporter might have with a white crackhead on Broad Street.
Racism in any community is a relative concept. It can’t be measured simply by how many white passersby are willing to hurl a racial epithet at a person of color or how quickly your city descends into a riot after a policeman shoots a black man on video. It’s a far more useful metric to spend some time in a city and gauge racial attitudes by how different racial groups get along, the diversity of economic opportunity, and the presence or lack of racial tolerance on an institutional scale. By that measure, Charleston may not be nearly as bad as the Post article makes it seem, but it certainly isn’t the Shangri-La you would expect in the “world’s friendliest city.”