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As Racist Symbols Fall Away

The Confederate flag may be coming down, but let's not congratulate ourselves yet

Shortly after Dylann Roof murdered those nine black churchgoers in Charleston after a Bible study, America found herself embroiled in a familiar difficult conversation: Debating symbols and signifiers of racism like racial slurs and flags instead of digging deep for solutions to the underlying problem. In a fog of grief and anger, the nation is reaching for whatever it can grab, and pulling hard.

Last Thursday, in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., the United States Supreme Court found that the state of Texas had the freedom to balk at a driver-designed license plate depicting a Confederate flag. In his dissent, conservative Justice Samuel Alito argued that the 5-4 decision “threatens private speech that government finds displeasing.” 

One reason why I disagree: Government traditionally adheres to the interests of the people (and corporations) who put its legislators into power. We learned, shortly after his Thursday capture, that this young white terrorist’s car had a Confederate flag on its license plate. And while the Stars and Stripes were lowered to half-staff in front of the South Carolina statehouse after the atrocity, the rebel banner remained at the top of the Confederate memorial’s flagpole, a clear symbol of white terrorism, unable to be lowered without legal decree.

You don’t have to look too far in your newsfeed or on your cable dial to know how bad a look this has been for South Carolina, and other states that have continued to allow a secessionist flag flown by a white-supremacist army defending black enslavement to adorn its state license plates and flagpoles. They’ve been tricked into thinking it has something to do with “Southern heritage,” or that this all simply isn’t important, especially in the wake of a much more serious event, the nine murders at Emanuel AME Church. 

Republicans, including Governor Nikki Haley and several presidential hopefuls, attempted to distance themselves from having an opinion on the flag, one way or another. Whether saying it’s for the state to decide, being utterly unable to decide themselves, or embodying that classic Desus Nice meme and telling us that you gotta hear both sides, virtually all voices in the GOP gave every answer but the correct one: Take it down. (To his credit, last weekend, former nominee Mitt Romney repeated his earlier call for the flag’s removal.)

Retailers like Amazon, Sears, eBay, and Wal-Mart all declared this week that they will rid themselves of Confederate merchandise; on Tuesday, four of the nine states that offer Confederate plates—Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and Tennessee—announced plans to remove the flag from their plates. South Carolina has not followed suit. By Wednesday, nearly all of those Republican hedgers, including Haley, had changed their tune.

Republican hesitance on this issue, at least, had a discernible political root. This is an issue they will struggle with as long they use race to scare voters into showing up. But given their historical dependence on those folks showing up at the polls, we saw just how quickly the GOP would avoid doing the easiest right thing to do. As my colleague Brian Beutler noted, Haley was showered with praise from the political commentariat after her Monday presser, lauded as a potential cabinet or even vice-presidential choice for the next Republican president. This happened only after she did the easiest thing in the world to address racial tensions in Charleston: Standing up and saying a racist flag shouldn’t fly. The entire presser had a very self-congratulatory air to it—a pat on the back for doing something overdue by generations.

Galling as the political reasons for Haley’s decision may have been, it matters to see symbols of racism fall away. Making sure that flag doesn’t fly in public spaces means a lot to black people young and old, and shouldn’t be treated as an ancillary issue as we come to grips with what Roof did. That said, I also don’t think we should be handing out cookies to any politician for realizing, after nine more black deaths, that it’s wrong to have the American swastika on state grounds and license plates. There is something to be said for witnessing this kind of change. It was a victory for the activists and organizers who have, in the last year, successfully shifted the national perspective on the abuse black people are suffering in the United States. Republicans didn’t alter their stance on this because they suddenly want to cater to black voters. They’ve realized that enough white voters now care that it makes a difference.

In politics, symbols draw attention to thorny issues like race with a highly visible target. It is much easier to criticize that flag than it is to meaningfully address, with policy, racial inequality and the white violence the Confederate battle flag symbolizes, just as it’s easier to complain about bricks and bottles thrown in Baltimore and Ferguson than it is to do something about what caused that anger.

In a speech delivered Tuesday near Ferguson, Missouri, Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton went further, both criticizing the flag—“It shouldn’t fly there. It shouldn’t fly anywhere,” she said—and the “act of racist terrorism” to which Roof confessed, countering the FBI director’s assertion that the murders were not officially an act of terrorism. Clinton also joined a panel of community leaders to discuss early education, child welfare, and racial disparities in health care, jobs programs, and other social issues. She even called for new gun control legislation. Rhetorical pushes are needed, but these are the words of a candidate more than a year away from her party’s nominating convention. What can happen today?

South Carolina may soon address the threat of white-supremacist terrorism with more realistic, acute legislation. The state is one of only five that do not have a hate-crime law, something that is inarguably needed given last Wednesday’s shooting and the FBI’s own Uniform Crime Reporting statistics—South Carolina reported 51 hate crimes in 2013, most motivated by racial bias. Donovan X. Ramsey reported in The Huffington Post that state representative Wendell Gilliard, a Democrat who represents the district where Emanuel AME is located, plans to address the assembly on Tuesday to demand the passage of a new, revived hate-crime bill. Gilliard has unsuccessfully tried to pass a version of it twice in the last four years.

Congressional Democrats, per Ari Berman’s report in The Nation, will be introducing on Wednesday the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015, which “would compel states with a well-documented history of recent voting discrimination to clear future voting changes with the federal government, require federal approval for voter ID laws, and outlaw new efforts to suppress the growing minority vote.”

If you’re cynical and see this as an attempt to seize upon yet another moment when race is at the top of each newscast, hey, do you. But too many black bodies have been broken in the last year alone, young and old. If you’re still considering race a “wedge issue,” you’re not being intellectually honest.

And if you’re a person of color in America, race is at the forefront of your lives in a way that presents itself in ways big, small, and too often dangerous. Whiteness never goes on vacation, but white supremacy is not yet visible and tangible to all. That’s partly why removing the very visible and tangible Confederate flag is important.

The secessionist flag, while still celebrated and purchased by many, triggers memories of racial trauma. Racism harms black folks physically, economically, and psychologically. But we cannot allow elected officials to simply talk about getting rid of a flag and move on, thinking they’ve done something about the underlying racism for which Dylann Roof—and the Confederacy—stood.

Prior references to "the Stars and Bars" were removed, as that refers to a different flag of the Confederate States of America.