Opinion Extra

McLawhorn: Better race relations key to economic growth

With so many South Carolinians struggling to survive in this recession, it's more essential than ever that we work together to create the kinds of communities that attract economic development.

In an effort to be competitive in recruiting a well-trained and educated workforce and sustaining a vibrant economic climate, most communities have invested substantially in improving their water, sewage, roads, transportation, parks and other infrastructure. Communities have also invested in such quality of life indicators as public safety, education and the arts. But there's one more investment that is essential in order to foster the economic development and growth that are the lifelines of any viable community: improved race relations.

South Carolina can no longer afford to under-invest in this intangible but crucial asset.

Often people are uncomfortable or reluctant to launch into a discussion about race because of possible fallout. But whenever I speak about economic development, the issue of South Carolina's racial climate always surfaces, because negative race relations and economic despair go hand in hand - as do positive race relations and economic vitality.

These discussions most often are below the radar. In order for this state to progress, we must move these discussions from behind the walls of our comfort zones onto public platforms and agendas.

Over the past few months, our race-relations image has been mostly negative, and this has decreased our ability to be competitive in attracting tourists, individuals, families and businesses looking to relocate or do business in South Carolina. We have become one of the most undesirable destinations for many. In many cases, we are unable to competitively recruit some of the country's leading scholars in higher education.

Addressing race relations is not a new strategy for promoting economic development in the South. During the era of legal segregation, most corporations avoided locating their businesses in this region. Efforts of civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led to the dismantling of legal segregation and a social transformation in the South that in turn produced an economic boom. As a result of this transformation, Southern states, including South Carolina, came to be referred to as the Sunbelt, a region of vibrant economic growth and prosperity.

Although we have made progress in race relations, they remain a challenge for our state. However, this challenge presents an opportunity for South Carolinians of good will to reframe South Carolina's image on race relations. This effort must be both vigilant and ongoing. In the words of Dr. King, "Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God and without his hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of stagnation."