“The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again.” — Sen. “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman speaking about President Theodore Roosevelt hosting Booker T. Washington at the White House in 1900.
OK, is it just me or does it seem that society is moving backward? The above hate language was spouted by then S.C. Sen. Ben Tillman, who was angered about a black man being invited to the White House. In 2010, folks — like Republican S.C. Sen. Jake Knotts — clearly feel that way about the S.C. governor’s office and the White House.
During a radio show that was taped in a Columbia bar, Knotts called Rep. Nikki Haley, an Indian-American Republican woman running for governor, a “fucking raghead” several times while explaining how he believed she was hiding her true religion from voters.
Haley has been endorsed by Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, but is under fire from Knotts because she is an Indian woman running against his candidate of choice: Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer. It doesn’t matter that she is a Christian and recognizes Sikh celebrations in deference to her parents. It only matters that she is Indian and was raised in a monotheistic religious household. Is Newt Gingrich, who was raised Baptist and was a practicing Baptist most of his life, less of a Republican because he converted to Catholicism?
During Knotts’ rant, he stated that there was already a “raghead” in the White House. And, not to worry: Like a good Christian, he did apologize for using the “F” word.
Unfortunately, the South Carolina tradition of using political spaces to spout venomous and hateful speech has not evolved even though the state is changing in many ways. People were up in arms over Rep. Joe Wilson shouting “You lie!” to President Obama, but Knotts’ comments haven’t generated as much of a backlash. It is clear that Knotts’ problem with Haley has nothing to do with her politics, which are very close to his, but everything to do with her race, gender and religious identity. The thought of someone who isn’t male and white winning the governor’s office literally drives Knotts, and people like him, mad. The saddest part about Knotts’ words is that they are hateful and incite more hate speech and hateful behavior in our society.
I was shocked and appalled to learn of the recent alleged shooting and dragging death of a black man in Newberry, S.C. Anthony Hill, 30, of Winnsboro, S.C., was found dead on the side of U.S. Highway 176. According to CBSnews.com, police followed the trail of blood from Hill’s body that stretched over 10 miles to a trailer occupied by 19-year-old Gregory Collins. The coroner stated that Hill died from a gunshot wound and police are trying to determine why Collins dragged the body after Hill was killed. The crime is being investigated possibly as a hate crime because of how the crime was executed, pun intended, and the fact that Collins is white and Hill is black.
The dragging death or lynching of a black man is not new, especially in the Carolinas with its long history of lynching and anti-civil rights rhetoric and legislation. According to John Hammond Moore’s Carnival of Blood: Dueling, Lynching, and Murder in South Carolina 1880-1920, there were 144 verified lynchings in South Carolina between 1880 and 1947. In recent memory, the high-profile dragging death of James Byrd Jr. in June 1998 in Jasper, Texas, generated countless headlines, so it isn’t like South Carolina is breaking ground in the area of hate. What is interesting is how hate crimes intersect with hate rhetoric, which is clearly on the rise. I would argue that the case involving Hill and Collins, co-workers and acquaintances, is a recent example of this.
I don’t understand why folks can get arrested for falsely yelling, “Fire!” in a public place, because it threatens public safety, but can say hateful things, which is also a threat to public safety — particularly those who are on the receiving end of hate.
It was recently reported that a group in Prescott, Arizona, was calling for a mural depicting faces of blacks and Latinos on a public school to be lightened or changed to white … but that’s not even the bad part. While working on the mural, people were driving by, shouting racial epithets at the adults and children painting the mural. With Arizona’s recent frenzy of racist legislation (legalized racial profiling and the elimination of ethnic studies from public school curricula) is it a stretch to imagine that some sort of violence will probably follow?
Which leads me squarely back to South Carolina, which has a tradition of politicians — Democrat and Republican — using their office as a bully pulpit, pun intended, to incite hateful behavior. Hate speech creates the climate and conditions that are ripe for hate crimes. I just hope that some people come to this realization before someone else loses his/her life.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. serves as cultural critic for Creative Loafing. She is an editor-at-large for TheRoot.com, where she writes the Buzz section and a bi-weekly column.