"3:30 in the morning with not a soul in sight
We sat four deep at a traffic light
Talking about how dumb and brainwashed some of our brothers and sisters are
While we waited for a green light to tell us when to go"
The quote above slips perfectly into the end of a short song by the group Blackstar (Mos Def and Talib Kweli) that features a number of lines by different artists about the beauty and complexity of Blackness. The poet who performs these lines describes how a traffic light can become a symbol that has the power to keep four people who do not consider themselves dumb and brainwashed from moving on an empty street in the still of the morning.
The quote reminds me that the world is filled with signs and symbols that have such power over what we think and do that they suspend our logic and reasoning. They guide our decisions even when we have the power to move with autonomy, and paralyze us even when we have the power to move.
Academics who study signs and symbols have been fascinated by their power for decades. Those who study semantics are intrigued by the ways that they make connections to things unseen. Those who study syntactics are curious about how they speak to each other. I wonder how a political debate about placing a symbol like body cameras on police officers after countless murders of Black people across the country combines with the decision to remove the confederate flag after the horrific murders on Black people in Charleston and how they both collude to create a false sense of hope and security that keeps the public sitting safely at a red light at the intersection of postracialism and white supremacy when they really need to drive past the light and move forward.
Semioticians always make it clear that they study signs and symbols because there is always an unheard and unwritten dialogue that is going on between, or guided by them. A powerful symbol instructs the average person without speaking and the inanimate object has the power to dictate how human beings react to certain situations. A symbol can suspend our intuition and preoccupy us with their commands. When we are driven to pay attention to the symbol, we are forced to stop, go, run, walk, be quiet, feel safe, and remain at a number of red lights.
Given the power of symbols, I find myself fascinated by the people who give them power and place them where they are visible. I suggest that the people who give power to the objects that exert power are the ones who are truly powerful. The political institutions (and those within them) that make the decision to place a camera and remove a flag are the ones who use these symbols to enforce their beliefs, to pacify the public, to guide the publics thoughts, or even to distract them. The institutions who place the red traffic light at the corner of postracialism and white supremacy want the public to sit at that corner until they accept that they live in postracial America while White supremacist ideals surround us.
In the current era of race relations in the United States, where Black people are hunted down by police officers and white supremacists alike, the way that symbols are used and manipulated in society are much more important to study than ever before. The adoption of the Confederate flag by white supremacist groups like the KKK and Skinheads certainly indicates that the ideals of these organizations are present in the spaces where the flag flies. The presence of the flag is a sign that hate is present; and either a threat or a privilege is being or will be exercised depending on the color of ones skin. In response, many argue that removing the confederate flag is a sign that that the hate the flag represents is not accepted or no longer present... what if it is.
In the case of the police body camera, its presence is a signal to biased officers and the public that police brutality is not tolerated. The absence of the symbol (the camera) was never viewed as a condoning or acceptance of the acts of bias. However, its presence as a symbol is necessary to indicate that there is a recognition that bias still exists among the police. Despite the fact that the body camera is a tool for capturing what is happening during police interactions with the public, its presence on police uniforms is more of a symbol intended to give the public a certain level of safety or protection against police that have a tendency to exhibit hatred towards particular groups of people. The camera is a symbol that says "I am here because we are not in utopia. I am here because all is not well with the police interactions with the public. I am here because bias still exists. The presence of the body camera is an acknowledgment that if you are a person of color, you cannot fully let your guard down.
As the nation discusses removing the confederate flag from public spaces, I wonder if the presence of the confederate flag serves as a symbol that indicates a recognition that something is wrong just as the presence of the body camera does on police. I wonder what the removal or placing of these two symbols is truly intended to do. Do they erase conditions related to race woven into the fabric of this nation that are clearly unresolved? Do they keep a hunted population at a red light when they have every sign around them indicating that it is the perfect time to move past the myth of postracial America? Are they intended to signal some kind of false safety?
One this that is abundantly clear to me is that if white supremacist beliefs and ideals exist, and a symbol that represents these beliefs is prominent, one knows where one stands within said context and can make the decision to either avoid that place or operate within that place with caution. If the symbol or sign is removed, and the hate that occupies that place remains, the unsuspecting believe that all is well and inevitably get caught in a clash with a brutal reality that the sign was there for a reason and was declaring a clear and perpetually imminent danger.
As I think of the current dialogue regarding the confederate flag and body cameras on police officers, I am compelled to consider the following questions and suggest we all do as well
1) Will removing flags and placing body cameras on police do anything to change the conditions that make the need for those acts necessary?
2) Does the overwhelming recent attention to removing flags and placing body cameras on police serve as a distraction from the attention that should be placed on the healing of families/communities indelibly marred by hate driven murders and the fact that nothing significant has been done to address the conditions that incubate that hate?
3) Does the overwhelming recent attention to removing flags and placing body cameras on police provide a false security that convinces a new generation of hunted youth of color to believe that they live in a postracial and safe America?
4) Does the support of removing flags and placing body cameras on police by politicians who have always had the ability to take a stand against police brutality and hate indicate some manipulation of public emotion for political gain?
5) What do we have to do to ensure that people know that removing ALL confederate flags and placing body cameras on ALL police are necessary; just not at the expense of posing questions to those that place the symbols that need to be answered?