Good Riddance to One Symbol
Hurray and Harumph — the Confederate Battle flags are coming down! It has been marvelous seeing the emergence of a public conscience in South Carolina. Let the symbol of hatred and racism come down! Across the South the Confederate Battle Flag is being removed from State House grounds and other public spaces. Walmart, Amazon and Sears have each said they will no longer sell this symbol of racism and exclusion. Good riddance, I say. It is long past time for this emblem of slavery and Jim Crow structures of oppression and injustice to disappear. Place it in a museum where it belongs.
Still, I am a little uneasy about my sense of triumph over this matter. Born as I was just across the river from Kentucky and growing up in an era when “whites only” signs were above water fountains in Louisville, I know that progress has been made with regard to symbols. I also know that as a “Yankee” (just barely by geography), there is too often a false pride and sense that the problems with racism are only in the south. I think of the appeal George Wallace had in Michigan when he ran for president or the treatment Dr. King received in Cicero, Illinois. We northerners too easily believe the problems of racism are located somewhere else.
So, as the Confederate battle flag is coming down in Charleston, I am thinking about those other, less obvious, banners of phony privilege and separation that fly in every corner of our nation. The removal of the Confederate flag should have happened long ago. And, the removal of these banners does not begin to compensate for the lives of the nine people who were Murdered at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
The nine persons who were assassinated deserve more than this important symbolic gesture. The millions who have lived with the tyranny of racial discrimination and implicit threat to their well being deserve more. At this time of repentance and reconciliation, the lowering of symbols of hatred is not enough.
Bringing down this flag is easy compared with ending the almost limitless access to assault weapons across our land. How many more gun deaths will it take for us to stop worshiping under the banner of a erroneous interpretation of the second amendment? When will we take down the banners of the NRA that fly over the heads of our congress and members of our state legislatures? Those murdered at Mother Emmanuel Church were not only the victims of racial hatred; to some degree their lives were taken by our inability to establish appropriate limits on the availability of weaponry on our streets. We will never know if more reasonable gun laws might have reduced the dimensions of this tragedy. Surely, our apparent blindness to the easy access to guns — the tool used in this tragedy — must be considered when we think about the Charleston assassinations.
What other less obvious banners do we fly without thinking of the ways they contribute to injustice? Who are our friends? How do we spend our money? Where do we worship? How have we benefited from racial privilege… often in ways we do not recognize? I have mentioned in an earlier post the work of Richard Rothstein (see for example: http://prospect.org/article/making-ferguson-how-decades-hostile-policy-created-powder-keg) and his valuable research on the history of racial privilege in housing. Often, even the diplomas hanging on our walls are symbols of the ways our educational systems were shaped by racial privilege.
NO, NO, NO, I am not asking you to feel guilty. I am simply saying that there is no room for false pride as the legislature of South Carolina finally does the right thing. Instead, this is a time to be grateful for the actions those in South Carolina are taking to remove one symbol AND for us all to consider the ways we, too often, live under the benefits of other less visible flags of privilege.