August 6, 2023

Steve Nuzum: So Good a [Lost] Cause (Part 1)

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Steve Nuzum is a public school teacher in South Carolina. In this first post in a series, he takes a look at some of the folks who have moved neo-Confederate rhetoric into South Carolina politics, including the attempts to dismantle public education.

Palmetto Promise Institute (PPI)

cofounder/ senior fellow Oran P. Smith will probably be confirmed to the SC Commission on Higher Education in the upcoming legislative session. His appointment was temporarily blocked by a Democratic filibuster last session, but this is South Carolina, and Smith is very popular among the state’s GOP policy elite. The former head of PPI, Ellen Weaver, is SC’s current Superintendent of Education, and she received endorsements from essentially every GOP power player, even those who initially supported her primary opponent. Smith has a long history of connections to some of the most powerful conservative operatives in the state, most notably convicted political kingmaker Richard Quinn.

Smith is a “political insider” who presents himself as an educational expert (though his degrees are in political science and administration); a chair on the Coastal Carolina University board; and a frequent invitee at legislative committee hearings on education policy, though as far as I can tell he has no training or experience in this area. When Smith addressed the SC House Education and Public Works Committee a few months ago, his presentation played like Wikipedia summaries of history, some self-conducted “research” on education finance, and information from local news. While Smith vowed to share “facts only,” his repeated use of the phrase “school choice” (a pro-voucher term), frequent references to his own research, and appeals to the PPI “data dashboard” clearly exposed his intention to support the cause of school privatization— one of PPI’s clearest and most openly stated missions.

In 1993, Smith edited an anthology of The Southern Partisan’s first ten years called So Good a Cause. When asked some valid questions about his time with the magazine, Smith said he started to change his thinking during debates about the Confederate Flag, which was placed atop the SC State House in 1961, during the heat of the movement to integrate public schools. The flag was then moved in 2000 to an arguably even-more-prominent place atop the Confederate memorial that stands in front of the State House, until SC became the last state to stop flying the flag in 2015. That’s when, according to Smith, he really changed his thinking, after white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine people as they prayed in their church in Charleston, SC, leaving behind a manifesto that echoed some of the talking points that pop up repeatedly in the anthology Smith edited.

One might ask how much credit an adult with a political science degree deserves for figuring out in 2015— after a mass shooting— that there may be downsides to neo-Confederate rhetoric, but it’s unlikely those tasked with confirming Smith will delve too deeply into that question. And while Smith may deserve a modicum of approval for acknowledging, finally, that the flying the Confederate battle flag atop the State House might inspire white supremacists, it’s also easy to read his focus on the flag— like former SC Governor Nikki Haley’s— as a kind of tokenism: see, I’m not a white supremacist, I supported doing this one thing to oppose white supremacy.

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