I’m not about to give the state of South Carolina a pat on the back.
It has been interesting to witness the complete 360 turn that the state of South Carolina’s political figures have taken over the course of the past 7 days. Last week, the state capitol of Charleston was struck by tragedy and horror, as a White man named Dylann Roof terrorized and ultimately murdered nine parishioners within the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. We then watched as media outlets struggled to label Roof’s actions as anything but terrorism, urged calm from the Charleston community, and sent correspondents out to the city to report and observe. We watched as many attempted to redirect Roof’s actions, saying they were triggered by religion and not race – this, even as a “manifesto” surfaced that further exposed the young man’s attitude towards people of color and even as a living eyewitness stated the ethnicity of the parishioners was at the root of his mission that night.
Following statements from numerous politicians – the foremost of which came from Congressman Bernie Sanders, who expressed not only empathy for the community but disgust in the whole ordeal – the focus has shifted away from Dylann Roof himself, to a more, um, to something easier to tackle: the Confederate flag. In less than a week, calls have been made by South Carolina statesmen to remove the Confederate flag from its grounds and 2016 Presidential hopefuls have condemned the flag and what it stands for “to some people.” Long revered by Southerners (and by Southerners, I mean mostly white Southern conservatives) as a symbol of rebellion and pride, the beloved “Dixie” in red, white, and blue, finds itself no longer beloved. Once allegedly protected and proudly defended by actual legislation in the state of South Carolina, the flag finds itself an easy scapegoat. South Carolina state Governor Nikki Haley verbally denounced the flag and called for its removal on Monday morning, as well. This, after refusing to acknowledge the Confederate flag as an issue at all in previous years.
South Carolina seems to just be the start of it, however; the state is Alabama is removing the Confederate flag from its capitol; retailers like Wal-Mart, Amazon and eBay are no longer selling the Confederate flag; and on The University of Texas campus, the Student Government and even the campus administration have begun efforts to remove from its grounds a statue of Jefferson Davis, the former President of the Confederate States of America Jefferson. Perhaps, this should be seen as a sign of progress, because now there is willing cooperation to remove these symbols of hate.
But I’m not about to give people pats on the back.
Because now Governor Haley looks reactionary. It doesn’t feel like #TakeDownTheFlag (the hashtag behind the movement) is genuine; it feels forced. It feels, to me, like South Carolina’s reason for doing so – and likely the reasons many other states will follow suit in the weeks and months to come – is to distance themselves from Dylann Roof. There are pictures of Roof posed and holding up the Confederate flag like a badge of honor. The strategy, it seems, is that by removing the flag, it will remove association with Roof and his line of racist thinking. It’s a quick fix to #TakeDownTheFlag because it redirects the conversation to a symbol, when it should be directed towards a mindset.
We’ve tried this before, remember?
Back in 2008 when election of a Black – well, multiracial, except his other half only wants to claim him when it’s time to start making national apologies for slavery – sitting President was supposed to “cure” the country of racism? I worry that this is the unintended misguided “goal” (if not an eventual consequence) of the sudden desire to remove the Confederate flag and anything associated with it, from any and all things possible in all states. That the majority of American citizens truly believe that removal of a flag – a removal decades, if not centuries, later than it should have been removed – will erase the stain of the legacy of mistreatment of Black people through slavery under the guise of economic opportunity. It took the killing of nine (more) Black people (one of which was a state senator) to prompt calling for the flag to come down? Were not the hundreds of lynchings in South Carolina just last century not motivation enough? Even now, on Twitter, a “bounty” of sorts has been raised for the Confederate Flag at the South Carolina state capitol.
Because the more we talk about the flag, the more we forget about Dylann Roof. The more we argue and debate about an inanimate object, rather than take the opportunity that has been given to discuss the lives lost and the lives taken and the reason why they were taken. On the one hand, the conversation is healthy – it’s forcing people to acknowledge that the Confederate Flag’s legacy goes much deeper than “Southern pride,” forcing people to acknowledge the racist history behind it and the harm it does. On the other hand, it seems to excuse the line of thinking of the “many people” Governor Haley noted in her announcement for whom the flag “stands for traditions that are noble.” Not that the flag shouldn’t be removed from its place on South Carolina’s capitol grounds, or from the myriad of license plates and other state flags throughout the country; it absolutely should. But if we are solely removing signs without aiming to challenge minds, well, we’ve tried that before, too – when “Whites Only” and “Colored Only” signs came down, but left behind racist practice and behaviors that persist even now.