But the Racist Flag Was Still There

Consider this a post written out of anger that’s barely lowered in temperature over the four days since it sparked.

In the wake of the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, I found myself rational, but raging. Every mass shooting I’ve written about, read about, thought about, heard about — Northern Illinois University, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Aurora, Sandy Hook, the Wisconsin Sikh temple, the Arizona shopping center — has stuffed itself into a single powder keg lodged between the “thinking” part of my brain and the “feeling” part of my heart. The Emanuel AME Church shooting was just enough to cap it off.

Then the Confederate flag fluttering over the state capitol lit the fuse.

The war-conflict metaphor is no accident, I assure you. This is war, complete with firearms, ammunition, hatred and Stars and Bars.

Defenders of the flag say that it’s a symbol of southern pride and heritage. I’m sure there are some Nazis out there who feel the same way about the red, white and black banner, but the majority of the Vaterland doesn’t want to think back to that dark time in its history — that’s why you don’t see parts of Germany flying it in some twisted nostalgia ritual.

But here? Heck — Mississippi’s state flag includes it as an homage.

Of course it's Mississippi.
Of course it’s Mississippi.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. Just as the swastika is still a pretty good indicator that someone’s an anti-Semitic racist jerkface, the Confederate flag also has a purpose — as John Oliver put it on Last Week Tonight, it’s “one of those symbols that should really only be seen on T-shirts, belt buckles, and bumper stickers to help the rest of us identify the worst people in the world.”

For those who are getting ready to comment below that “the Confederate South was not like the Third Reich,” take this passage from my current train read, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Granted, it’s in reference to U.S. concentration camps for Japanese-American citizens, but the sentiment is the same, especially considering how many black people died from abuse in slavery and lynchings, arson and starvation after liberation:

“A person unaware of all the factors that make up oppression might have expected sympathy or even support from the Negro newcomers for the dislodged Japanese. Especially in view of the fact that they (the Blacks) had themselves undergone concentration-camp living for centuries in slavery’s plantations and later in sharecropper’s cabins.” (p. 209-10)

Maybe reading Angelou’s book at the same time of the Emanuel AME Church shooting also added to that powder keg — it’s hard enough to read about the sins of society against an entire race during the 1930s and ’40s without being reminded that it’s still happening today.

Because guess what? It’s still happening today.

Black people get shot for deciding not to respect the same authorities that blasted their parents and grandparents against brick walls with fire hoses and smacked them with billy clubs when they fought for the right to vote. Meanwhile, white people with mental problems get ignored or, in the case of many of them, handed a gun by good ol’ Mom and Dad for their birthdays.

Yes, these are small samples of a large population — not every cop is racist, not every white kid with mental issues is a potential killer. But remember the number of Middle Eastern people who are refused a can of unopened soda or, like in the case of my Iranian co-worker, told in the middle of a department store over a clearance rack, “Go back to your own country.” All because of a small portion of the 1.6 billion or so Muslims in the world — not all Middle Eastern — committed an act of terrorism.

But there is a small sample of people that do matter, that should be remembered.

There’s a reason I didn’t use a photo of the Confederate flag as the banner for this post, but rather chose the image of the Emanuel AME Church during a ritual on Friday during the shooter’s bond hearing (taken by Bryan Snyder of Reuters). There’s also a reason I haven’t until now mentioned Dylann Roof’s name. It’s because everyone will hear enough about the flag, about the bad guy.

Not enough people will think about the nine people — Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor and Susie Jackson. They’re just “the nine” for whom the rest of the flags fly at half mast.

That is, all flags but one.

Today Gov. Nikki Haley made a motion to take down the Stars and Bars. But there are two things standing in her way: process and stubbornness, both on the part of a small fraction of South Carolinians and the pulley system from which the flag waves. The General Assembly is the only government body allowed to take down the flag with a 2/3 vote. The cord the flag is on only allows it to be at full-mast or not up at all — all signs that they never intended to take it down.

But what unnerves me the most is it took this long to get a symbol of hate noticed at all. I just saw The Daily Show‘s coverage of it a few minutes ago, and contributor Jessica Williams put it perfectly through a bit called “Helper Whitey” — black voices have been saying it for more than a century as they were forced to go to church on a road named for a racist vice president and stare at a capitol still proud in its slavery-based roots, but it took white voices (including Jon Stewart’s monologue on Monday and this very blog post) to get the rest of the world to listen. Only when Sharonda, Clementa, Cynthia, Tywanza, Myra, Daniel, Depayne and Susie died at the hands of a mass shooter and a score of Republican presidential candidates, both past and present and including South Carolinian senator Lindsay Graham, realized they needed to take a stance to help their chances at scoring the White House, did anyone start saying “Governor Haley, Tear Down This Flag.”

It’s infuriating that only tragedy can cause a change, but it’s even more appalling that the change is as small as taking down a flag. It’s a start, but it’s not enough. We can do better — but I fear we’ll forget we can.

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