06/26/2015 11:35 am ET Updated Jun 26, 2016

After the Flag Comes Down

I had hoped that something positive and politically actionable would come out of the horrific act of domestic terrorism last week in Charleston. So far, it seems that a critical mass has emerged on one of the most pressing issues of our time, one that wasn't even discussed a week ago: the use of the Confederate flag.


Please don't misunderstand me. The Confederate flag is a terrible symbol. But I have lived through these endless debates since I was a kid growing up in North Carolina, including the "fierce debate" at my own high school over whether kids had the right to wear the flag (on a t-shirt). This standoff between parents and administrators ended by the time a Raleigh news station showed up to interview us in the school parking lot.

Under pressure, the principal reversed the ban. The Confederate flag t-shirt bearers were usually the same kids who drove to school in F-150s or Ford Mustangs, and accidentally left hunting rifles in the back. Even in a county that voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush twice, they were on the fringe.

But to think that our collective national energy is now being spent on the idiotic display of the Confederate flag seems like an inadequate target for our grief and anger. The flag fracas is happening because it's an easy grab for Northern liberal elites. It's also a way to smear the South and everyone who lives in it and, by extension, Republicans. (This, by the way, is coming from a Democrat). Even the BBC refers to the current Confederate flag trend as caused by "liberals who blame it for stoking racism in America." But the flag focus draws attention from the more important problems that are pervasive nationally -- school segregation and gun control -- that know no geographic boundaries. Is this the tortured logic: if only the flag had come down a generation earlier, then nine people would still be alive?

If people are really interested in reversing racism in the deep South, as well as in the heart of Boston where I now live, drop the condescending, arrogant attitude towards an entire region. We are often told that "winning hearts and minds" is the key to nation-building and the establishment of truly democratic institutions. But by ridiculing and patronizing the South, Northern elites are just as inept as the neo-cons who invaded Iraq, who sought to "enlighten" and "democratize" a people and a culture that they simply did not take the time to understand.

We have been most successful as a nation when we have used soft power to provide a political, social and economic model envied by other nations, so envied that it provoked internal regime change. The North, when attempting to change the politics of the South, should do the same. Unfortunately, it cannot point to successful examples of school integration. It cannot point to examples of great upward mobility and racial harmony. It has its own ignored racist legacy to contend with, a legacy of bus riots that isn't erased by a few Underground Railroad tracks.

I want to pause and emphasize that I wholeheartedly agree that the Confederate flag must come down. I'm thrilled and frankly a bit shocked that Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has advocated for this. But the drumbeat of think pieces and John Oliver rants now flooding our media propagates some of the worst stereotypes about Southern whites, stereotypes that inhibit rather than advance racial progress. You can't convince people by talking down to them. And it seems to me that Northern liberals never miss a chance to mock the people in the South during times like these times. Then, these same columnists and prognosticators simply cannot understand why the South continues to turn more and more Republican, "against their own interests," I often hear. Why don't poor Southern whites side vote Democratic anymore, they wonder?

Because they don't like being told that they're stupid for caring about their family trees. Because they don't like being told how to behave or how to act by someone who has never lived where they've lived. Because they resent, as all people everywhere resent, naked paternalism.

The problem is that the criticism when discussing the South typically comes from an outsider's perspective that adopts a tone of bemused detachment. As I listened to the coverage of the Charleston shootings, NPR reporters struggled to give words to the massacre. Not only because they were not Southern, but also because they were not black. They simply lacked the vocabulary for articulating the nature and the context of the tragedy. If they went to school in the Northeast, they probably never had black classmates, and the only time they ever heard the n-word was in reference to a rap song. They never heard it spoken in malice to a neighbor, as I did as a very small child. I had to confront and conceptualize racism at the interpersonal level because I had the good fortune of attending integrated public schools. Too many of these journalists are so insulated from everyday racism that when it blows up violently, it's like watching a Martian land. It's incomprehensible, and they have nothing to say except a parroting of their own Southern stereotypes.

Fox News exists because you won't often find a Southern voice in mainstream media, just as you won't often find a black voice on NPR. This lack of representation in media means that when a crisis like this happens in Charleston, some media outlets that I follow most closely are suddenly without language. They have neither the authentic voice nor any real perspective on Charleston's culture. And when covering Charleston, they systemically ignore that racism in the United States has always been a national tragedy, even for those states that were always "free." Police brutality against African-Americans is not a uniquely Southern institution.

The Confederate flag is a target precisely because it is a symbol. But by focusing on overt symbols rather than concrete policies and inherent prejudices, many are missing the point. Why isn't the front page of a major newspaper discussing the repeal of the Second Amendment? Why isn't there an article trending about the harmful effects of school segregation on Millennials like the shooter?

Using the deaths of nine people to bring the flag issue back into the spotlight may bring some symbolic comfort, but we should not delude ourselves into thinking this will, like the election of a black president, fix anything by itself. The groundswell of support for anti-racist action should be quickly shifted elsewhere. And ridiculing the South as a whole will only calcify resistance to more substantive policy changes.

We as a nation have a short, limited attention span in the wake of tragedies. Political capital is ephemeral. The media momentum should be channeled towards actual political change, not generating another "investigation" about white supremacist campaign donations to the GOP or the Republican presidential candidate calculus. Who cares? Are you going to argue for the umpteenth time that Republicans are influenced by nativist, racist elements in their base? Instead of pointing out the obvious, let's get some Southern Republican votes on our side to get something actually done. If marriage equality succeeds at the Supreme Court this week, it will be partially because of a calculated message of love, adopted after the movement stopped labeling its political opponents as bigots.

We get it: Northerners think Southerners are dumb, irrational people. But maybe after you stop patronizing and start giving us an example worth emulating, we'll start following your lead.