The Department of Homeland Security calls the 2020 presidential election “the most secure in American history,” and yet the “Big Lie” that the election was stolen persists. As disturbing as this is, there is a more persistent and far more damaging lie embedded in our nation’s history. Our biggest lie began in 1619 when 20 enslaved Africans were brought to our shores. For 246 years we formulated a wide array of arguments to support and defend slavery. Among those was the claim that Black people were innately inferior to white people. It was a lie.
I was never told that Black people were inferior to white people. Those words were never spoken in my home, and giving voice to such a notion would have resulted in immediate correction and strong rebuke. And yet, growing up in South Carolina in the 1950s and ’60s, that was the clear message I received. No spoken words were required to communicate white supremacy. The innate inferiority of Black people to white people was presented as the natural state — simply the way things had always been and should remain. It was a lie.
As a young boy, I had no Black friends. None of our neighbors were Black; our schools were racially segregated, as were the restaurants where we ate, the church where we worshiped, theaters we attended and the clubs where we played and socialized. I vividly recall the separate restrooms in downtown businesses, clearly marked “Men,” “Women” and “Colored.” I distinctly remember the water fountain in a downtown department store where I was instructed to drink, and the one I was told to stay away from. The unspoken but clearly conveyed message was that white neighborhoods were generally safe and friendly places to visit, but Black neighborhoods were to be avoided.
As a small boy, I knew Connie and Orah, African American women who occasionally helped clean our house. I also knew Charles, an older African American man who occasionally worked in our yard. I never knew their last names. As a young boy, it never occurred to me that calling these adults by their first names was hurtful and wrong. I had no awareness of how demeaning this was to them, but was simply following the same distorted script that everyone I knew was following. I was unknowingly complying with a deeply embedded system of dehumanization, blindly obeying rules and customs based on the illusion — our country’s biggest lie — of the innate inferiority of Black people.
A variant of the familiar line from the Gospel of John goes like this: “You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free, but first it will make you miserable.” I have come to believe that deep-seated personal racial bias, often unintended, unconscious and difficult to acknowledge, is one of the major causes of the continuing systemic racism that plagues our community and nation, and that sharing our personal experiences and stories is an effective way — perhaps the best way — of becoming aware of and hopefully overcoming our hidden racial bias.
Members of Greenville’s Racial Equity and Economic Mobility (REEM) Commission have been encouraged and challenged to shine a light on our own personal history, as well as Greenville’s history, to be honest and clear-eyed about the underlying causes of racial inequities still present in our community, and to develop concrete steps to reduce and eventually eliminate the barriers to racial equity. Our conversations can be uncomfortable at times, but also liberating. Although this work is emotionally charged and complex, the REEM Commission is steadfastly committed to the goal of closing racial equity gaps that continue to exist in every sector of our community. Accomplishing this goal is not only the right thing to do, it is in the best long-term interest of our entire community.
Dr. Baxter M. Wynn is retired as Minister of Pastoral Care and Community Relations of First Baptist Church. He’s currently with United Ministries and is a Greenville County Racial Equity and Economic Mobility Commissioner.