Greenville Instututions Take on Community and Racial Equality

Jun 9, 2020

South Carolina has seen several marches and protests following the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmad Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, including this one recently in Columbia. A few counties away, Greenville's public institutions are capitalizing on what community leaders consider both a teaching moment and a moment ripe for implementing long-needed change.
Credit Todd Greene / Unsplash

If no other metric would convey the weight Greenville County’s institutions and residents are giving the discussion of how to dismantle ingrained racism in the county, the attendance at Tuesday’s Community Matters online forum would do it.

Roughly 200 people logged in to Community Matters – a regular forum that usually gets, at most, a few dozen attendees. The attendance surprised even those who ran the forum, including Rev. Sean Dogan, pastor of Long Branch Baptist Church in Greenville, who likened the attendance to the exegesis he said so many (mainly white) people are having as the national conversation about racial justice ramps up.

“The conversation is becoming more proximate, in that people are stepping into empathy,” Dogan said. “For many people, it seems as though this is a revelation, that all of the sudden, they actually see it. [But] I think we have to keep in our forefront that a present revelation for some is a historical reality for others.”

Nika White, a Greenville-based consultant and speaker on diversity and inclusion, said that there is a narrative shift in the conversation about systemic racism, away from palatably general terminology and towards uncomfortably direct language.

“People are being pretty direct and deliberate about using the word ‘racism,’” White said. “Before, oftentimes, we had packaged these conversations by talking about it under the auspices of ‘unconscious bias’ [or] ‘implicit bias.’ Softer language. The language is in shift.”

How words are used was on the minds of all presenters and several attendees, who asked about it through chat. One attendee questioned whether it’s even good to use terms like “black community” as opposed to “our community,” commenting that the former could be seen as divisive.

Rev. Dogan said that specifying “black” in these conversations is not divisive, but, rather, necessary to focus the conversations being had.

“It’s specific,” she said. “Especially locally, if you do not utilize ‘black’ in conversation, it could potentially dilute the conversation.”

Forum leaders discussed one particular emotion they hear coming from whites in the county – discomfort. As the conversation forced to the surface by a spate of recent high-profile racial incidents moves forward with such force, they said, white members of the community are increasingly trying to help support black equality, but they are unsure what to do with the discomfort they feel in how to present their desire to help.

White said that discomfort is actually a necessary driver for change.

“I just want to reiterate the significance of not moving too quickly to try to get past the pain of the discomfort,” she said. “It’s important for that level of uncomfortability to sit with us for a while because it keeps us, hopefully, focused on the work ahead.”

She added that those who do want to stand as allies in the fight against racism need to follow up their words with “useful action.” This holds true for companies and organizations as well. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, nonprofits, corporations, small businesses, and even law enforcement officers have minced few words to convey their disgust. Chester County Sheriff Max Dorsey, in fact, has flat-out called Floyd’s death murder by a law enforcement officer.

Forum leaders said the outcry and the statements released by organizations is welcome, but the phrase “useful action” came up frequently Tuesday. White said that simply stating an objection to something is only one step, and that whites wanting to be an ally for racial justice need to back up their words with actions. These actions, she said, could be as far-reaching as supporting legislative changes or as simple as self-educating through books or websites.

“That’s really important because it’s also necessary to try to take the burden off of our black coworkers, our black constituents, our black employees so that they aren’t having to relive some of the trauma that really is painful to talk about.”

Beyond the personal level, there is the communitywide effort, led by institutions. The main driver of this is the newly formed Greenville County Race Equity and Economic Mobility Commission, which Phillips said will address issues “that impede full equality and opportunity for black residents throughout Greenville County.”

The “key impact areas” to be studied by the commission, he said, include educational opportunities, income and economic mobility, health outcomes, and issues affecting seniors.

There is also the matter of accountability and follow-through.

“How can we make sure that the work of this commission is not in a binder sitting on a shelf somewhere collecting dust?” he asked. “It’s going to be important that we take these priorities and ensure that they’re being implemented and advanced throughout the community.”

The institution most at the center of the conversation about racial equality, of course, is law enforcement – which Greenville Sheriff Hobart Lewis said needs to rethink how it interacts with the public.

“What we’re working on now is getting some of our policies, especially our use of force policy, put on our website,” Lewis said.

But it goes beyond the presentation of policy, he said.

“One thing we’ve worked on, being involved in the protests, “ he said, “is communication. Have we really listened to each other, and do I understand as a white male in law enforcement? Do I really understand the issues that have been brought forth?”

Lewis said that in his day-to-day work, he’s tried to be fair, but realized he’d been missing something important when it came to his (admittedly few) employees of color.

“It took several days [from the outset of the protests in the county] for me to realize that I need to ask them how they feel about this,” he said. “What is it like for a black female who we have working here? How does she feel having to work these protests? Does she want to be involved in this protest? Does she want to be in this march instead of having to work this march?”

Lewis said the sheriff’s office is working on the answers, thanks to “some incredible conversations” that have opened his eyes to some things he was unaware of.

Then, of course, there are the economic factors. Megan Barp, CEO of the United Way of Greenville, cited the pay inequities in the county.

“Per capita income for whites in the City of Greenville is almost three times higher than for blacks,” she said. “Per capita income for blacks in the county is 67 percent that of whites, and this is a larger gap than in the state overall.”

Barp said that such numbers illuminate the need for “a true action plan” such as what the Race Equity and Economic Mobility Commission is trying to achieve.

“[The commission is] really bringing the best and brightest of Greenville County together to say, ‘We want something different for our county,’” she said.

Philips spoke about how health and economic equality is the best medicine for the county as it figures out the concrete steps to take. He referred to the approach as “enlightened self-interest.”

“If we have a healthier community, that’s good for business,” he said. “If we have a community where people have an opportunity to earn more money and maximize their income potential, that is great for business. If we have a community that is better educated, that is great for business. So there is an enlightened self-interest, if you will, in engaging in this work.”

As more community institutions and individuals address those challenges more in-depth, Phillips said, the better it’s going to be for the overall economy, which means better things for everyone who can tap into it.

“The more people that win,” he said, “allows for the greater community to win as well.”

Scott Morgan is the Upstate Multimedia Reporter for South Carolina Public Radio. Follow Scott on Twitter @ByScottMorgan.