WHITE OAK—The evolving face of race relations in South Carolina and in the United States as a whole was the focus of “A New Conversation on Race: Engagement and Change.”
The Jan. 21-22 conference drew about 75 members of the clergy, church workers and lay people who participated in meetings, worship and small group discussions about racial issues.
Sponsored by the S.C. Christian Action Council at White Oak Conference Center, the event was meant to give people from different backgrounds a chance to have frank discussions about race in today’s society, which some people have mistakenly described as post-racial since the election of President Barack Obama.
Missy Walker, administrator of the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the Diocese of Charleston, led small group discussions during the conference. She said the people who attended were not just paying lip service to the idea of improving race relations.
“We ended up attracting people who really had some great ideas, who wanted to go forward and do more,” she said.
One of the keynote speakers was the Rev. Sheila Elliott, associate pastor of Francis Burns United Methodist Church in Columbia. She said one issue that must be addressed is the fact that some people look at President Obama and other successful African-Americans and assume that racism no longer exists. Many young people, she said, don’t want to talk about slavery or other historical events related to race.
“We can’t relinquish the truth that the past shapes everything,” Rev. Elliott said.
Maria Smoak, director of Spanish ministry at St. Peter Church in Columbia, took part in “The Faces of the New Conversation,” a panel discussion held Jan. 21. Other members of the panel were Rabbi Jonathan Case of Columbia’s Beth Shalom Synagogue, the Rev. Ken Nelson from the S.C. United Methodist Conference, and Imam Omar Shaheed from Masjid As-Salaam, a Columbia mosque.
Each member of the panel was asked to give their perspective on race relations in the state, and what issues need to be addressed.
Rev. Nelson said that as a Christian, he looks on racism and hatred as a sin, and people of faith have to look for new ways to address these sins and try to eradicate them in the world at large.
“Any new conversation has to center around the fact we live in a global community, and we have to find a way to live together respectfully,” he said.
Rabbi Case said all people must reflect on their common humanity while acknowledging differences in race and culture. He said it’s also necessary for people of faith to be constantly aware of the human tendency to marginalize others whom they perceive as different from themselves, and work to overcome those prejudices.
“Time changes. People don’t,” he said. “We need to be guided and always aware of both ourselves and others. Anybody who is a minority knows what it means to be marginalized, and our human ability to surmount our basest instincts is very weak. We can’t let our guard down.”
Imam Shaheed said discussion about race in the African-American community needs to be both outward and inward. He said it was important to fight against racism, but also for African-Americans to address problems in their own community.
“We have a shared responsibility of making America better, and we also need to do things that make us love ourselves more,” he said. “The remnants of slavery still exist, but we can’t expect somebody else to do what needs to be done. The hurt, pain and ugliness of racism are still there, but we also have to take on some of the responsibility of improving things for ourselves.”
Smoak said Hispanics are often overlooked in discussions about race because historically, issues of race relations in the United States have centered on whites and African-Americans.
That will need to change, she said, because of exploding Hispanic populations in South Carolina and nationwide.
“The Hispanic perspective is not one that’s been included in this discussion, and they have been here just as long as everybody else,” she said. “For some reason that is not being recognized or remembered at this point of time, even with the unprecedented growth of people with a Hispanic background. Latinos have made legitimate contributions to our society from time immemorial. A conversation needs to take place that is broader than just black and white issues.”
Smoak talked about how her family came to the United States from Cuba during the Castro revolution, and said many people initially don’t realize she is Hispanic because of her accent.
“They tell me, ‘Well, you don’t look Cuban,’ and that brings up the question of what does a Hispanic look like?” she asked.
She said many people tend to lump all Hispanics together under one cultural umbrella, mistakenly referring to any Hispanic they meet as Mexican.
Smoak also said her work with Hispanics at St. Peter has left her concerned that strict immigration rules and laws that have become politically popular will only make things worse for Hispanics.
“We’re trying to enforce laws that are keeping this population at the very bottom, and in the end if we do that we are only hurting ourselves,” she said. “If we continue to let a population develop that is poor and undereducated, everyone is hurt. We cannot keep a whole people down.”