Let's say for a minute that you're Clemson University. Let's also say that over the last year, your campus has been engaged in a debate on what to do with your most famous building, which remains named after Ben Tillman, a man who once said:
As to his “rights”—I will not discuss them now. We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be equal to the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him. I would to God the last one of them was in Africa and that none of them had ever been brought to our shores.
Let's also assume that after a group of students - mostly black, but some white - asked for the school to re-name the building, the chairman of the Board of Trustees said something similar to:
Every great institution is built by imperfect craftsmen. Stone by stone they add to the foundation so that over many, many generations, we get a variety of stones. And so it is with Clemson. Some of our historical stones are rough and even unpleasant to look at. But they are ours and denying them as part of our history does not make them any less so. For that reason, we will not change the name of our historical buildings. Part of knowledge is to know and understand history so you learn from it. Clemson is a strong, diverse university in which all of us can be proud. That is today and tomorrow's reality and that is where all our energy is focused.
Now, think of what you might do, being an institution built by those imperfect craftsmen who wanted to deny black people the right to ... live, if you had to respond to a tragedy in which the ideology of your forebears was the motivating factor in blowing to bits nine black human beings in a church. Think of what your response might be if you needed to demonstrate that you cared after an act of racial terrorism was committed by a white man against nine residents of your state.
You might do something like this, and post it to your Instagram account:
Tone-deaf doesn't even begin to describe what Clemson's done here, and really, it's just a reflection of how deep white supremacy runs in these United States of America, and particularly in South Carolina. To frame a memorial to nine victims of racial terrorism in front of a building honoring a man who once said that he would "willingly lead a mob in lynching a Negro who had committed an assault on a white woman" would be particularly egregious in any circumstance. It's especially egregious in light of the fact that Dylann Roof, the killer in question, accused the black population he targeted of "raping our women."
Clemson is setting the bar so low here that ants are optimistic about their ability to clear it. To think, the "intellectual" initiative at the university for the academic year 2014-15 was "Race and the University." And isn't this the perfect indication of what's wrong with the way we romanticize Confederate culture in our most esteemed institutions? Clemson is so far detached from reality and humanity that it fails to draw the unbroken line between Ben Tillman's insistent calls for white-on-black lynching and Dylann Roof's willingness to take up that call.
There's a certain mixture of obliviousness and hideousness that allows one to celebrate the beauty of a building rather than recognizing the sure racial implications of that building. Clemson has since removed the picture from its Instagram account, and in the grand equation of racially offensive things that Clemson and her majority alumni base do, this ranks fairly lowly. But it's a sad indictment of the deep roots of white supremacy that universities in the South have difficulty even finding a righteous way to honor the victims of racial terrorism because in every angle they might turn the lens of their camera, a relic in celebration of racial domination stands horribly tall.
From this alumnus, I've one thing to say to Clemson, to my fellow alumni who support this continued celebration of white supremacy, and people everywhere who embrace this insidious tradition of hatred: For Shame.
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