This past Saturday morning, my wife, Saadiqa, and I pulled into the parking lot of W.O.R.D. Ministries Christian Center, a little brick church surrounded by lush oak and maple trees in Summerville, S.C., where Walter Scott’s funeral was about to begin. Cars were parked all over the grass and lined the surrounding streets. On the lawn, friends and families exchanged warm, tight hugs, fully dressed in sharply pressed suits, dark dresses and elegant hats despite the already blistering heat.
Blink, and you might think it was a family reunion. But before the glass doors to the church stood two large black hearses, like watchmen poised to snatch any stray moment of relief or forgetting. You can never relax, they seemed to say — not in church, not waiting for the traffic light to turn, not walking down a sidewalk enjoying a bag of candy.
Saadiqa and I got out of our car, sore from the four-hour drive from Clemson, where we moved to from Pennsylvania two years ago to start new jobs at Clemson University, where she teaches women’s leadership and I teach popular culture and social movements. We took a place in the line of people standing outside the church to pay their respects, holding tight their neatly folded white handkerchiefs, dabbing gently at sweat and tears.
Behind us in line was an elderly woman who appeared to be in her late 70s, with natural gray hair and a floral print on her worn but starched cotton blouse. We got to chatting, and I told her about our morning’s travel. She peered at me sternly over her glasses.
“You know, Clemson is a good university,” she said, in a kind but firm way that signaled a but coming. “But it’s hard for young folk — like my kin — to get in,” she said. She told me she’s been noticing Clemson students moving in for a new wave of high-paying jobs that have been coming to North Charleston. “I see those Clemson flags from my backyard,” she said.
She’s talking about gentrification, of course. North Charleston is a far cry from the growing economies of Greenville and Columbia, but in recent years, new industries and malls have started to slowly attract college graduates to this area. Some of my students will likely be among them, and their arrival will transform the business, cultural and political landscape here. It is also likely to raise rents and, over time, displace folks like this grandmother and her family.
On some level, her words stung. As a Clemson professor, I work hard to give my students the knowledge and credentials to make a good living wherever they find opportunities. I help push this tide.
Perhaps it seems odd to meditate on gentrification when there’s a body not 10 feet away, the sound of recorded gunshots still ringing in all of our ears. But as NPR’s Martin Kaste reported last week, black lawmakers brought it up at a press conference outside North Charleston’s shiny new City Hall. They talked about body cameras, but also about how poor black residents here have been getting shuffled around for decades. When the city of Charleston gentrified in the ’80s, those folks were squeezed into North Charleston. Now, with the new malls and industries creeping up into North Charleston, they’re getting elbowed out again. The lawmakers said unfair policing practices — like excessive police stops — are helping to speed that along.
In the meantime, people from the state’s poorer towns, like this one, pay taxes to support my university, which is 10 percent taxpayer-funded. But what do they get back? While South Carolina is 28 percent African-American, and on average, African-American students make up 22 percent of four-year public colleges across the state, Clemson’s black student population has dropped from 9 percent in 2009 to just 6 percent today.
It occurs to me that after two years of getting to know many of my students, I have yet to encounter one who called North Charleston or Summerville home.
A lot of these tensions go way, way back. The school was founded in 1889, and one of its founders was a white supremacist and South Carolina politician named Ben Tillman who refused to accept federal funding for Clemson unless he could take half of the state funds originally meant for the South Carolina’s black colleges. Clemson begrudgingly accepted African-American students in 1963, only after Harvey Gantt, Clemson’s first black student, lobbied the United States district court in Anderson to require integration.
Let me be clear about something: I enjoy working at Clemson. I’m constantly meeting with colleagues and students who are clearly genuinely enthusiastic about changing problems that they understand. But after many months on this campus, I can’t help feeling that racial minorities are primarily visible in the imaginations of many white Clemson students as the sources of their musical and athletic entertainment.
And, increasingly, as the subjects of crime stories.
Perhaps that’s how you get an environment in which something called a “Clemson Cripmas Party” can occur. This was back in December, when SAE fraternity members made headlines after inviting students to a party dressed in red and blue headbands, fake jewelry and shirts featuring black rappers, to pose for Instagram photos with scrunched-up faces and “gangster” hand gestures. When confronted, some SAE members explained that these kinds of parties are a regular tradition, so why was it a problem this year?
As North Charleston continues to gentrify and become more attractive to students at Clemson figuring out their next steps, including the more privileged and less culturally literate among them, it’s hard to see how this latest economic wave can wash over its poorer residents without crashing into them.
The elder woman’s words were still in my head as we inched closer to the church doors at the funeral. Saadiqa and I struck up conversations with more people in line, and a couple told us about acquaintances who went to Clemson. Far more told us about their children in high school who would like to go to Clemson. I handed out my business card.
A deacon in a dark black suit and spotless white gloves asked us to move back to make room for Scott’s family as they exited the church, and the elder lady we were chatting with grabbed my arm to say goodbye before she drove off to the cemetery.
“You keep doing what you’re doing, young man,” she said, with a full smile, and said she’ll be thinking of me when she sees those orange flags waving in the neighborhood. She hopes we’ll figure out ways to get more young people from North Charleston among the Clemson grads who end up putting down roots here, “because they are going to be the ones who really help.”
Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika is an artist, activist and scholar who holds an assistant professorship in Clemson University’s department of communication studies and a creative professorship in the College of Architecture, Art and Humanities. His January 2015 article on whiteness and public radio voice was featured on National Public Radio, The Washington Post and Buzzfeed, and it spawned a nationwide discussion on diversity and voices in public media.