About the only welcome news to come out of the tragedy at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last week is the movement to force South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag from its place of honor on the grounds of the state Capitol (which The Times’ editorial board endorses). That former defenders such as Gov. Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, both of South Carolina, finally recognize that the flag is, for a large swath of people, the symbol of oppression, and bondage, is a good thing.
But at heart, removing the flag from the seat of South Carolina’s government (and eventually, I hope, from the Mississippi state flag and its other reiterations across the Old South) itself is a symbolic act. As President Obama mentioned in stark terms during the ”WTF” podcast released Monday, just because people no longer say the “n” word in public doesn’t mean we’ve put racism behind us. And dropping the Confederate battle flag from government grounds and insignia also doesn’t equal real change.
Still, the step should be taken. The flag was designed as a battlefield identifier of the troops fighting to preserve an economy and social system built out of the bondage of blacks, who were viewed then by most whites as less than equal, and not quite human. Understanding history requires looking at events through the prism of their own times, but it’s also important to render judgments from a universal perspective. Even in its time, many people recognized slavery as a crime against humanity.
And slavery was not just a Southern thing. While the institution built the South’s agrarian economy, it was also important to the North. New York City rose as an international trade and finance hub in part through the slave-based cotton industry. The sense of white supremacy that fueled slavery sang from the pages of local newspapers in Detroit and elsewhere that vociferously defended the institution, segregation of the races and the subjugation of blacks, usually in nakedly pejorative terms. And most of the American slave-trading ships sailed from New England ports. Brown University, part of the elite Ivy League, was founded with its profits (a history the university has sought to confront directly). Slavery was not just a Southern thing then, and neither is racism today.
Flying that flag 150 years after its purpose ended is a de facto embrace of what it symbolized. Despite the protestations of ostensibly Southern heritage groups, the flag represents an immoral culture and economic system built on racism and the labor of enslaved blacks. There have been arguments that the flag should be removed because it offends African Americans; it should offend all Americans. That it doesn’t says something about our fragmented society.
Still, consigning the flag to history museums is, as welcome a move that might be, a symbolic step. What comes now is the harder part: concrete action. The nation has progressed considerably in the half-century since the Civil Rights Movement gained enough momentum and support to begin crumbling the legal walls of segregation.
But in many ways we remain stalled. One of the turning points, from a public perspective, of the Civil Rights Movement was the Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., which killed four young girls. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the eulogy for three of the victims, and said, in part, that their murders “say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.”
A couple of generations later, the blatant nature of racism might have subsided, but it remains potent, and King’s words, unfortunately, remain relevant. Segregation is a stubborn problem. So is economic disparity, in part a function of educational disparity. As recently as three years ago a majority of white Americans harbored ill feelings toward black Americans, whether conscious of the prejudice or not, according to this Associated Press poll. This is not a black problem, though African Americans bear the weight of its impact. It is a white problem, and it is up to white Americans to figure it out.
Striking the colors of the Old South is a positive step, to be sure. Flying that battle banner on government — read, public — property tacitly endorses what the flag represents, and that should end — including license plates and other government-related uses. In this free society, individuals have a right to fly that and any other flag, though they should do so mindful of what the rest of us might infer about them and their attitudes (a friend says the flag signals the people she should avoid).
But the underlying issue remains stubbornly in place. The killings of unarmed black men by white police officers in recent months brought our racial divide to the forefront of national discussion. So again it has risen with the murders of the nine African American churchgoers by a young white supremacist who, authorities said, sought to start a race war.
The alleged gunman’s racism is not intrinsic but is a learned attitude, something he absorbed from the atmosphere in which he came of age. That is what society — white society — needs to confront, and contravene. Removing a symbol doesn’t do that. So the burning question remains: How do we get there?
Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.