We are better than we think we are

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South Carolina is a unique state. We are not like other states – partly because of our history, our culture and our politics.

One of our historic legacies is what one writer called our debilitating inferiority complex. It is best summed up by the often-heard phrase, “If it’s a list of good things, we are on the bottom and if it’s a list of bad things, we are on the top.” Or put another way, “Thank God for Mississippi” as they always seem to be worse off than we are.

This was once true, but in reality, it is no longer so – though we still think it is.

Like so much of everything else, this mindset is part of our history and part of our psychology as a state. Much of both goes back to the traumatic events of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

First, the history. In the hundred years or so after the Civil War, we were at the bottom of the heap in so many categories. There were huge swaths of our state that were stagnant backwaters of appalling poverty, ignorance and racism. And for many, this remained largely unchanged until the post-World War II era when this isolation began to break down.

But even beyond the history, our state’s sense of a psychological inferiority complex has been even more debilitating. We were a rigid paternalistic system – first with plantations and then with textile mills – where the vast majority of folks in our state, black and white, stood hat in hand waiting on instructions from the big man in the big house or the big office.

Much of this has changed, but our mindset hasn’t.

Today, South Carolina is a growing, thriving state with a diverse population and diverse economy – we are as global as we are local. Just 10 examples:

  1. Our Governor, and soon to be U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, is the daughter of an Indian immigrant. She was a Sikh before she was a Methodist.
  2. We have 1,300 international businesses in this state, more foreign investment per capita than any state in the Union.
  3. Second only to Washington state, we have the highest rate of new people moving to our state. Horry, Charleston and Beaufort counties are all in the top five counties nationally for population growth.
  4. The technology sector of the Charleston area is booming – growing 30 percent faster than the nation as a whole.
  5. Such iconic global brands as BMW, Boeing, Volvo, Michelin, Continental, GITI, and Daimler-Benz now all call South Carolina home.
  6. Starting from zero a generation ago, we are now the leading state for tire production and we export more cars than any other state.
  7. We have had four Nobel Laurates in science and chemistry.
  8. The Spoleto Arts Festival is one of the largest and most diverse festivals of its kind anywhere in the world.
  9. Charleston is consistently rated as one of the top cities in the world to visit, and just this month, Greenville—yes, Greenville—was ranked as one of the 10 best downtowns in America.
  10. USC’s Darla Moore International Business School is consistently ranked as number one or two in the county.

So why do we still think of ourselves as po’ old South Carolina standing with our eyes downcast waiting for instructions from on high?

The answer is simple – politics.

We still have a good old boy political system that is the legacy of the bad old days and is holding us back. It is a system where one party rules, where corruption is rampant, where special interest dominates, and where big and important issues are neglected – i.e. education, roads, state pensions, etc.

But it does not have to be this way.

Three things are happening all at once: we will soon have a new governor and a new president, and a new round of corruption indictments of legislators is just beginning.

There are those who fear these developments – but in change there is opportunity. Thus, the question before us is, are we as a state going to build on our new-found success, our new global position, and our new opportunities to demand fundamental change in our politics – or not?

How we as a state answer these questions is up to us – and it will determine our future.

Phil Noble has a technology firm in Charleston and writes a weekly column of the SC Press Association. Reach him at phil@philnoble.com and get his columns at www.PhilNoble.com.

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