Study in Black and White

Magazine cover reading "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards"

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 15 No. 3/4, "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards." Find more from that issue here.

From April 12 to April 15,1987, The State of Columbia, South Carolina, gauged the progress of efforts to achieve equality of opportunity among blacks and whites. Based on a poll of 512 people and interviews with 100 blacks and whites, the report examined how both races assessed opportunities in employment, housing, education, government, and political representation. 


Columbia — The majority of South Carolinians agree that relations between the races are better now than 20 years ago. But there is growing concern that many whites think they have done enough for blacks, and it's time blacks make it on their own. 

The result, according to a state-wide poll and in-depth interviews conducted by The State, is a conflict of feelings between whites, many of whom think their role in the civil rights movement ended with desegregation, and blacks, who say whites are increasingly indifferent to blacks' struggle for better education, employment, and political representation. 

It also seems apparent that recent public controversies concerning the Confederate battle flag, a resurgence of Ku Klux Klan marches, and discrimination in private clubs are indications that tensions between the races are resurfacing. The State's interviews and polling data clearly show that these events have been divisive, drawing out negative feelings and forcing people to take sides. 

A few blacks and whites said renewed public attention to racial issues may have the positive effect of demonstrating that the contemporary civil rights movement, begun in the 1950s, is not over. Other blacks, however, were not so optimistic. 

"Now we're at a standstill, getting ready to go backward," said Abigail Rogers, a black attorney who lives in Columbia. "Right now it seems OK to say, 'Black people are inferior. I don't like black people. Black people are stupid.'" 

She added, "Someone said to me recently, 'Why can't we keep black people out of clubs if we don't want them in?' No one would have said that to me a few years ago." 

Rogers' concerns and others' are supported by findings of the South Carolina Poll, conducted by The State in March, and in subsequent interviews with 50 white and 50 black South Carolinians. The poll asked 515 people to assess changes in racial attitudes during the past 10-20 years. The personal interviews focused on similar questions and further explored racial issues in 1987. 

Among the findings: 

♦ Most blacks and some whites say black South Carolinians have not overcome economic barriers that stand in the way of equal opportunities. 

♦ South Carolina has legally desegregated, but it has not integrated. Blacks say opportunities are better than in the past, but they are still not equal to whites in terms of access to jobs, housing, education, and social amenities. 

♦ A majority of whites and blacks acknowledge that racial segregation and discrimination exist today, particularly in social situations, although most say segregation is a product of economics. 

The South Carolina Poll found that three out of four people statewide believe relations between the races are better now than 10 years ago — an opinion supported later in interviews. Results of the statewide sample show that feeling is shared equally by blacks and whites. But when people were asked to judge progress of the civil rights movement during the past 20 years, two-thirds said it had been only "somewhat successful" in bringing about equal opportunities for both races. 

The response also indicated a sharp contrast of opinion between the races. Less than 10 percent of blacks said efforts to achieve equal opportunity have been "very successful," but 30 percent of whites gave that response. 

"Blacks are not willing to call the movement toward equal opportunity an unqualified success," said Dr. Emerson Smith of Metromark Market Research Inc., which conducted the poll for The State. "There have been successes, but not the achievement of equal opportunity. . . ." 

South Carolinians say money — or the lack of it — separates blacks from whites. Economic factors were mentioned most often as the dividing line between the races in jobs, housing, education, politics, or social situations. 

"Blacks don't have the same access to jobs and the same potential for accumulating wealth, and, as long as they don't have equal economic opportunity, there is not true equality in other realms of life that are affected by economics," said Columbia attorney Stephen G. Morrison, who is white. 

"There's no equality in the job market," said Ida Spruill, a black nurse from Marion. 'That takes care of everything else. If you don't get any money, you can't afford to do anything else but survive from day to day." 

Even though a majority of both races agreed that racial segregation and discrimination still exist in South Carolina, most people said money — more than racism — limits access to better housing, education, social, and recreational facilities. 

"It's more than a black versus white situation," said Clente Flemming, 36, a black vice president for a large bank. "I can walk into any store in Columbia and just the bare fact that I'm a vice president at a bank will make them want to serve me. But another black might not be able to do that if he was a janitor." 

Marjorie Johnson of Saluda, a white restaurant owner, took a broader view. "We just all think that if [blacks] can make a living like we do, why can't they be the same as we are," she said. 

Most whites said all opportunities were open to those who could afford them, regardless of race. But blacks said the opportunities are not the same as for whites because job opportunities are not the same. It's going to be jobs. It's always going to be jobs," said Helen Duckett, 33, a black woman from Columbia who works two full-time jobs.