S.C. postcard (2): Stereotypes save time, but …

29 Jan

The South Carolina GOP primary on Jan. 21 is already fading into the distance—maybe especially to Newt Gingrich. Even so, as I thought about my voting-day visit there, I kept coming back to at least one takeaway: Curb the stereotypes. An old lesson, maybe, but one that apparently needs repeating.

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The stereotype, in this case, is someone who is a belligerent, ultra-conservative white Christian (probably Baptist), probably racist in deed and attitude if not in word, and eager to create something like a modern-day theocracy. Those folks are out there, to be sure. I met a few of them.

But the picture is more complicated than that, even in Greenwood, a town of 22,000 souls in the rural southwest corner of the state. That is, we’re not talking about a one of the large, more cosmopolitan centers like Charleston, Columbia or even Greenville. Even in little old Greenwood, it’s not clear that the stereotype fits the majority.

For instance, the first person I talked to in Greenwood was Blake Kendrick, associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Greenwood. That congregation is aligned not with the Southern Baptist Convention but the (moderate-progressive-liberal-whatever) Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Let that sink in a moment: First Baptist Church is not a traditional or necessarily conservative Baptist church. For one thing, Kendrick said he and the senior pastor, Tony Hopkins, “believe in the absolute separation of church and state,” a position he says is the historic Baptist position but would also likely put them in the minority of pastors in the area. (Considering the few other pastors I talked with there, he’s probably right about that.)

“The church doesn’t need leaders in the government to endorse Christian ideas to be effective leaders,” Kendrick said. “If a person was another faith that I believed was an effective leader and would make a good decisions, then I’d be more prone to vote for those proven abilities as a leader than religious ideas. … I say any candidate who’s using religious jargon: you immediately lost credit—and credibility.”

The population of Greenwood is anything but monolithic, with a population that was about 44 percent white and about 44 percent African-American in the 2010 census.

Given the state’s charged racial history, it would be easy to conclude that Caucasians rule the roost or that the black citizens are passive. It would also be easy to assume that the Republicans dominate the politics, especially since Greenwood County voted solidly for the GOP presidential candidates the last two elections. (About 60 percent of the county’s vote went to John McCain in 2008.)

Renee Little working at Greenwood's 2nd precinct during the Jan. 21 primary

Both assumptions would be wrong. Almost one-third of the county’s 37,953 registered voters are African-American, and they are active. Floyd Nicholson, who’s not only African-American but also a Democrat, served as the town’s mayor from 1994 to 2008—until he was elected state senator. Two of the six city council members, including Mayor Pro Tem Linda Edwards, are African-American. (They also are two of the three women on the council.)

Even Barack Obama added to Greenwood electoral lore, when he visited early in his 2008 campaign, while he was still a long-shot. Three poll workers at Precinct 2, which is predominantly African-American, gleefully told how one of their friends, Edith Childs, woke up an early-morning, sparsely attended gathering with the candidate with a call-and-response that took on a life of its own in the national campaign: “Fired up? Ready to go?” Obama still likes to tell the story.

This isn’t to ignore real differences and divisions that exist, or the fact that stereotypes evolve for a reason. Political scientists and pollsters build their careers on broadbrush analysis that explains why South Carolina votes one way and New Hampshire votes another.

Maybe that’s why it’s easy to forget that no place is merely the sum of its stereotypes and individuals are bigger than our labels. Most of us are more complex, more nuanced, more varied and even more intelligent than that, at least on our good days.

I confess it’s tempting, especially during an election season, to start a sentence with these lazy words: “Those people are just a bunch of …”

Greenwood reminded me that’s a temptation to resist.

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