Let’s start with a concession that would seem to contradict the premise of this piece:
“They” in this context are the people who believe the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse — and the recent surge of anti-flag related gestures from Walmart, Amazon, and others — is a just symbolic act; an aesthetical token that won’t do much to change America’s racial zeitgeist and the structural inequality it stems from. It will not change how our criminal justice system sits on a foundation of brick and mortar bias; a Orwellian institution where, in some states, Blacks are 10 times more likely to be in state prison or local jail than Whites. It will have no immediate effect on the pervasive, bone-deep void of empathy that allows a police officer to treat a 14-year-old girl in a swimsuit like an escaped convict. It will do nothing about how the average White family has 12 times the wealth of the average Black family — an unfathomable financial gap that’s actually widening. The surreal way in which Black language, Black customs, Black art, and Black physical features are praised when possessed (or co-opted) by anyone other than actual Black people, will continue. As will gentrification and displacement. And the increasingly depressing reports about the status of schools in predominately Black communities. And the political careers of people like Kris Kobach. And the playing of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” on every Carnival cruise I happen to be on because of a family vacation.
And, I’ll admit, while watching the pomp and circumstance surrounding the removal of this stupid flag — you would have thought they were handling the Shroud of Turin — I also began to think it was much ado about nothing. Especially considering how transparent the lightning-quick flag aboutface was. As anyone could see, it’s less about some sort of collective racial epiphany and more about people just realizing they’d be on the wrong side of history if they continued supporting it. They weren’t coming to Jesus. They were covering their own behinds.
But, I would have been wrong.
The importance of symbols — both in a metaphysically transformative sense and a real, actual, practical sense — should not be minimized. They matter. And, I understand how that might be a difficult concept to grasp. Because a symbol does not murder. They do not hate. They do not subjugate. They just exist. But they exist as representatives for a larger entity or a more comprehensive thought.
There’s no discernible difference between a bottle of Dr. Pepper and a bottle of Pepsi. But years of being exposed to both has conditioned us to know that, if a soda bottle is wrapped in a red and blue label, it’s going to contain, while the bottle wrapped in maroon and white will be something else. And we adjust our expectations accordingly. The Confederate flag and the American flag also possess some aesthetic similarities. They both use the same colors, both incorporate stars, and both use lines (horizontal for the American flag; diagonal for the Confederate) in the designs. But, today, in 2015, they represent far different ideals. One, for Black Americans, is home. A deeply flawed home, but home nonetheless. The other, however, stands for a very specific hate; a hate so intractable that millions were willing to sacrifice their own lives for it to continue to be legally permissible.
I’m reminded of this every time I make the drive from Pittsburgh to visit my family in Cincinnati, a trip I’ve made so many times that I’m familiar with and look forward to certain landmarks. How the speed limit jumps from 55 to 70 when you leave Pennsylvania and enter West Virginia. The cows — the many, many, beautiful cows — you see everywhere when entering Ohio. The signs for King’s Island as you near Cincinnati. And, as you’re making your way through Ohio, the large barnhouse with the Confederate flag painted on the roof.
Perhaps whoever owned the barnhouse is long dead, and it stands now as some type of historical relic. And maybe the message expressed by that gesture isn’t actually shared by this person’s neighbors. Maybe he’s just the silly old local racist no one there pays any attention. But when I see it while driving though a state I don’t live in and a county I get no cell signal, I’m reminded that I might not be welcome there. That just existing in that space might be dangerous for me. And if I happen to be going 71 mph in that 65 mph zone, I slow to 63. (Although I want to jump to 93.) Because I don’t want to give anyone any legal excuse to stop me there, in that space. Because of that flag, and what that flag means, and what it means to look like me and be in a place where people seem to be cool with it being so prominently displayed.
So yeah, the removal of this treasonous flag of a degenerate cause from the capital city in one of our states might just symbolize a removal of hate instead of actually removing hate. But now those who choose to remain on history’s wrong side can’t look to the statehouse to validate their beliefs. That protection no longer exists for them. (If this makes them feel unwelcome, like their heritage is being devalued, and their personhood no longer matters, well, get in line.)
And, again, the type of racial climate that exists in a place to allow its government to fly the Confederate flag will not change overnight. But there’s a difference between possessing hate and a legally sanctioned advertisement of it. Still, if you happen to be Black and driving through South Carolina, you should probably stay below the limit.