Somewhere between the tragedy of the Charleston shooting and the comedy of the faux conservative horror over President Obama's use of the n-word is a profound statement on the power of white privilege in 21st century America. It is not good old-fashioned racism, although there is plenty of that to go around. The fact that the Confederate flag still flies proudly over the South Carolina State House is as much a commentary on the denial of black voting rights as it is on the reverence for the mythical Dixie of pre-Civil War America that stoked the racists fantasies of Dylann Roof and many others.
Instead, it is a repackaged and slightly less robust form of racism that happily concedes more overt forms of prejudice and discrimination in exchange for the maintenance of white supremacy. Under the veneer of post-racialism, colorblindness and host of other terms legitimizing privilege, it is often marked by a hypersensitivity to issues of race meant to mask, but that often barely contain, significant hostility. News that South Carolina lawmakers might finally change the law to remove the flag is just the type of empty gesture that fuels such hostility.
In 2007, conservative critics assailed then candidate Barack Obama for his decision not to wear an American flag pin. They sought to frame his choice as evidence of his presumed disloyalty and lack of patriotism. Even after Obama explained his position, the criticism persisted from those who lectured him on the importance of the flag as a symbol. If symbols on the lapel of the nation's chief executive matter as an affirmation of citizenship, they certainly mean as much in the privileged space over state houses in the South. That is where lawmakers are sworn in and from whence local police and officials derive their authority.
It is the kind of microaggression that sociologists and other scholars warn maintains white privilege and damages the psyche of people of color -- especially African Americans who are intimately acquainted with the history of terror and oppression associated with the symbols of Confederate power.
While I, too, would love to see the Confederate flag banished, I am wary of the debate ending with this symbolic gesture. Symbolic gestures, after all, rarely have anything more than symbolic consequences. What we need is real, systemic change. The removal of the flag will do little to conquer the persistent racial animus that continues to define and inform U.S. race relations without concrete programs to address the underlying fear and inequality that feed it. It will become yet another outward sign of "progress" devoid of any tangible action on the issues of race and poverty.
This is exactly what some of the usually-hostile-to-race-issue voices now speaking favorably about removing the flag really want. Individuals like Senator Lindsey Graham who came under fire in 2014 after he remarked, "If I get to be president, white men in male-only clubs are going to do great in my presidency." The South Carolina Senator later claimed that his comments to the all white, all-male Hibernian Society of Charleston, South Carolina, were a joke, although it's hard to see the humor in light of the present tragedy. It explains why there has been little discussion of the connection of this tragedy on their part to the larger Black Lives Matter movement now taking place. In the fuzzy arithmetic of their moral equivocation, flag pins matter, firearms matter, border patrols matter, but black and brown lives don't matter unless they can be leveraged for some self-serving political purpose. Endless dialogue about urban crime, code for "Black Crime," for instance, has been the rallying cry of the gun lobby for years. Now on the heels of the South Carolina shooting, NRA Board Member Charles L. Cotton had the audacity to blame the pastor for the carnage. "Eight of Reverend Clementa Pinckney's Church Members who might be alive," he posted in the aftermath of the shooting, "if he expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead innocent people died because of his position on a political issue." The idea that "God fearing Christians" bring armaments to a house of worship with a foundational doctrine against killing is on its own laughable, but part and parcel of the selective morality that characterizes the gun lobby. Presumably, they preferred officials wresting rifles instead of bibles from the cold dead hands of Roof's victims.
In this way, microaggressions become macro confessions about who and what we truly are -- a bitterly divided republic unable to live up to its professed values and rallying around the wrong flag issue. As Americans, we should be deeply concerned about the lives of all citizens and prepared to work toward addressing those divisions that prevent us from making the most of our pluralism. Taking on the issue of gun violence in this country goes beyond the tired victim-blaming and race-baiting that passes for dialogue among some.
We must ask deeper questions about the sale and manufacture of firearms as well as antiquated laws, less visible but no less insidious than the shadow of the Confederate flag, that place American lives in jeopardy. Trading the removal of the flag for a pistol in every pulpit, especially given the propensity for those weapons to be used unjustifiably against people of color, is not the conversation we should be having. Fortress America is a house divided; it cannot stand. Revitalizing public education, addressing issues of poverty and inequality and tackling the troublesome history and persistent problem of racism in this country are far more worth subjects upon which to ruminate.
The Attorney General's Report on Ferguson is a great blueprint that could serve as the basis for similar reports for other communities around the country. It will also require a breaking down silos and a national dialogue not solely on race, but history and our collective failure to live up to the aspirational beliefs articulated by Thomas Jefferson in the of the Declaration of Independence. For as long as the symbols of the Confederacy stare accusingly at us from the fabric of southern flags and lawmakers refuse to truly address not only the issue of poverty but the easy access to fire arms and the shameful slaughter of all American citizens, regardless of color, in gun violence it remains evident that we don't really believe our founding principles: "that all persons are created equal... endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights [of] life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."