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In race for USC trustee, like it or not, race matters

On Wednesday, the 170 members of the General Assembly will vote in an election that, a month ago, nobody but the candidates, legislators and a few others cared much about.

But that was before race - not the race for the 16th Circuit representative on the University of South Carolina Board of Trustees, but the race of the candidates - became part of the election.

This is South Carolina. The first state to secede, the state that flies the Confederate flag from its Statehouse grounds. Race always comes up because of the way blacks have been treated in this state.

And until things are equal in this state - where about 30 percent of the population is black, but other than on athletic fields there is rarely if ever a one-third black representation in anything - race should come up.

Incumbent trustee Leah Moody is the Rock Hill lawyer appointed by Gov. Mark Sanford last year to fill the seat that represents York and Union counties when the black incumbent resigned because of a criminal indictment. Moody is the only black trustee.

If she were to lose Wednesday against Rock Hill lawyer Alton Hyatt, there would be no black trustee for the state's flagship university.

A few members of the Legislative Black Caucus threw a match on the always-dry powder keg of race last month when they suggested that black athletes consider other schools for playing football if Moody loses.

The NAACP also urged people to contact legislators and voice concerns that having an all-white trustee board would put USC closer to 1810 or 1910 than 2010.

It is tough to argue against that logic. It seems unthinkable - preposterous, even - that a state with more than 1million black people should have no blacks on the board to help decide policies about admissions, programs, faculty - all those important things that affect students of every race.

Yet neither Moody - the daughter of former state Rep. Bessie Moody-Lawrence, the second black woman ever elected to the General Assembly - nor Hyatt says this contest is about race, or even want to talk about race.

"This is about qualified candidates, and I am qualified," Moody said Monday. "I have the education and experience of my time on the board."

Moody said she understood what some in the Black Caucus were trying to say, but that's not why she believes she should be re-elected.

"I don't want to jeopardize any student's opportunity at an education," Moody said. "I don't want them to fall on their sword for me.

"It should be the other way around. I need to make sacrifices for them."

Hyatt, a former lawmaker, also said his candidacy is about wanting to serve. He has wanted to be on the board since 1992.

"I've continued to focus on myself, and I am not getting into racial issues," said Hyatt on Monday. "I want to be considered on my merits."

Both concede, however, that race has become a part of this election. Both Hyatt and Moody are USC alums, and well-respected in their fields. Hyatt is also a pharmacist - USC grad in that, too.

Clearly, both are qualified to be a part of the board that governs the huge university system that has eight campuses and tens of thousands of students.

It is not racist for white male York County politicians to try to unseat the sole black USC trustee with a white candidate.

In South Carolina, we as the people give these legislators the right to elect the trustees.

It is downright ridiculous, though, for some of those representatives to think that people of any color - but especially blacks - would not notice a board that could be as white as the underside of a perch.

It is not that Moody supporters "brought up race" because there was a chance that the black candidate could lose, as state Rep. Ralph Norman, a Hyatt supporter, alleged last week.

Not having a black trustee is simple math. And eyesight.

The jocks in this state worried about the effect on the football team. "Recruiting!" they howled, after last year's great 7-6 campaign.

USC's student body is about 11 percent black. The NAACP wants more black college students, not more black college athletes. So it is also not racist for black activist groups - or anybody for that matter - to want a trustee board that reflects the population of the state.

The issue of racial equity comes up every time there are judicial elections because there are just a handful of black judges in the whole state.

The issue of race came up when Barack Obama ran for president here, it comes up because U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn is the sole black congressman from South Carolina.

It comes up when county and city councils and school boards are chosen by the public.

Voting districts statewide, countywide, citywide, in many school districts, are drawn partly because of race, and to ensure that black candidates have a chance.

Even the bylaws of the USC trustees call for the board to represent all of us: "The Governor shall make the appointment based on merit regardless of race, color, creed or gender and shall strive to assure that the membership of the Board is representative of all citizens of the State of South Carolina."

Moody's supporters have touted her qualifications and experience as a sitting board member, not just her race.

Moody is the sole black candidate for any of the slots on the board, which has four-year, unpaid terms that start in July.

Both Moody and Hyatt said Monday the election is close and each is continuing to seek votes from legislators. A simple majority wins.

"You never know, but I feel good about my position," Hyatt said.

Moody, though, has continued to let legislators know about her record and what she has done in the months since she willingly accepted the trustee post and all the commitments of her time and energy that it requires.

"I'm going to continue to reach out to legislators and I am going to hold my head up high when the votes are tallied," Moody said.

Hyatt said he didn't consider race or who the opponent might be when he became a candidate. Moody didn't, either.

But many of us do, every day, because we live in a state where nearly one in three of us is black - a state where, by Wednesday afternoon, the board deciding so much about that college experience might not have anybody who isn't white doing any of the deciding.