Symbols and Substance

So many responses to the tragic shooting in Charleston on June 17.  A surprising number of them thoughtful, by the usual standards of public discourse on race.

Kudos, first, to South Carolina Gov. Nicki Haley, a Republican, who in the wake of the Charleston shootings, suggested that the state move the Confederate battle flag off the state capitol grounds.  Most candidates for the Republican nomination refused to take a stand of any kind on the Confederate flag.  Gov. Haley stepped in, pointing clearly to the right way to go.The contrast between her truth-telling and their embarrassing, unctious cowardice couldn’t have been clearer.

But isn’t it interesting that the media focus went immediately to the issue of the flag?  No question–and I speak as someone who spent his formative years in Tennessee–it’s time for the flag to come down from government buildings across the South.  But is it the most important issue for us to address in the wake of this kind of terrorism?  Colbert I. King of the Washington Post notes that these discussions are like treating the pain of a broken leg without fixing the break itself.

Conservative political columnist David Brooks wrote wisely about this issue, noting that racism has “been woven by historical events into the fabric of American culture.”  To him, removing public signs and symbols honoring the Confederacy “is not about rewriting history. It’s about shaping the culture going forward.”  Removing the flag is just one of many ways we would hope to shape the culture of the future.

Take down the flag?  Of course. It is a symbol, to many, of racial terrorism that lasted more than a century after the abolition of slavery.  You can have my grits when you pry them from my cold, dead hands, but I don’t have to accept the horrors of Southern history in order to appreciate the warm, generous ethos of Southern culture.

Not a Southerner?  Doesn’t much matter.  As Bryan Stephenson of the Equal Justice Initiative said, “The South is uniquely burdened, but the problem is fundamentally American.”  Northerners too often point to the South in order to ignore the otherwise-obvious fact that racism is a problem for the nation as a whole.

How then to respond to the tragedy in Charleston?  The theme of Getting Race Right is “racial justice as the path to racial progress.”  The victims of this latest display of hatred and terror can best be honored by working for racial justice in any number of ways.  Here are three:

  • Stop the growing disenfranchisement of people of color by laws specifically designed to make it difficult for them to vote.
  • Expand Medicaid throughout the South–and the rest of the nation–in order to bring affordable health care to millions of people of every racial background.
  • Quit sending Black people to jail for crimes for which White people receive much lighter sentences.

I applaud you, Gov. Haley, for your stand on the Confederate flag.  You sparked an important, and meaningful, change.  If you, and others, now want to move beyond symbolism and make real progress on race, any one of the three bullet points above would be a good place to start.

Charles W. Green, Professor of Psychology, Hope College


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