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Take Down the Confederate Flag? Of Course, but Cure the Disorder That Caused It to Be Raised in the First Place

The Confederate Monument in South Carolina
The Confederate Monument in South Carolina
Dennis Parker,
Former Director,
ACLU Racial Justice Program
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June 26, 2015

We have witnessed the removal of the Confederate battle flag from some state houses and may see it removed from more, if not all, of the states in which it continues to fly. The total removal of the flag, whenever it occurs, will be grotesquely belated. And those who warn us that its removal, though vital, is only the first step that the nation must make if it is to realize the values that it claims to hold are completely right.

But we shouldn’t race too quickly past what the flag means and what its removal should signify. If the removal is driven by expediency, such as a desire to dial back the growing anger in the run-up to a presidential election, it would be a squandered opportunity to take a searching look at the current status of race in the nation.

In fact, the Confederate flag is one of many symptoms of a festering illness, one that has infected the United States since its founding as a country that recognized and relied heavily on the sale of human beings.

A recent New York Times story quoted a man who opposed the possible removal of the battle flag as the “beginning of communism” and a blow to the South, which he described as “the last bastion of liberty and independence.” He concluded by noting, “Our people are dying off,” before urging a white reporter to “keep reproducing.” The appeal to racial purity in his statement is both abhorrent and refreshing in its honesty. It is clear that his view of liberty and independence is not intended to be inclusive. This stands in stark contrast to the disingenuous invocation of heritage and recognition of bravery which is usually relied upon to justify support for the flag.

The flag, which was resurrected in the middle of the 20th century as a symbol of opposition to the growing civil rights movement, hearkens back to a war fought to perpetuate slavery and as a means of provoking fear and terror into people whose ancestors had been previously enslaved. It is a symbol of oppression and inequality. No attempts to mask it with discussions about heritage can obscure the reality that the Confederate flag is a symptom of the diseases of hatred and discrimination.

It is neither the only indicator of that sickness nor the only one that people seek to hide by using neutral language. Attacks on Black churches are dismissed by apologists as attacks on Christianity, in spite of the fact that the perpetrators of the acts espouse clear racial hatred and often profess to be Christian themselves. In another, though not mutually exclusive, act of deflection, apologists link the attackers’ actions to mental illness or anything other than the desire to destroy Black institutions, which have provided sanctuary, sustenance, and meaning to generations of Black people and have served historically as headquarters in the fight for civil rights.

But attacks against the Black community aren’t restricted to white supremacist killers, they are only the most sensational manifestation of American society’s enduring fear and mistrust of Black Americans.

The use of repressive and violent policing against communities of color is excused by concerns about crime. The mass incarceration of people of color that has exploded over the last several decades is the result in large part of a purportedly neutral war on drugs and tough on crime policies. Efforts to purge voting lists or prevent registration of new voters — which have disproportionately disenfranchised voters of color — are described euphemistically as “voter integrity.” All, and countless other examples, are symptoms of the underlying disease that subordinates people of color and blocks their full participation in American society.

Covering symptomatic sores would not qualify as a cure for leprosy. Ignoring repeated temperatures of 105 degrees could not be considered a path to good health. Likewise, ignoring the various symptoms of the underlying discrimination that continues to threaten the body politic is a guarantee that we will continue to suffer from the disease of discrimination.

Take down the confederate flag? Yes, of course. But cure the disorder that caused it to be raised in the first place.

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