“Suffering is wine…sacred wine. If you water it, it isn’t sacred anymore; but watering the wine of suffering is terribly important for the people who don’t suffer.”
-From Amazing Grace, by Jonathan Kozol
The front page debate of the day is the removal of the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina state capitol grounds in the wake of the Charleston massacre. The state of the “Great Nullifier” John Calhoun and the filibustering segregationist Strom Thurmond has buried one of the last symbols of its rebellious past.
In April 2011, I wrote the following about the right of the Confederate flag to fly in a public place:
“In Palestine and in many other towns across Texas, Confederate memorials are almost as prevalent as courthouse squares themselves. Honoring veterans who were, in their lifetimes, parents, children and dear family members, is a social impulse that knows no national or racial boundary. Who can deny the right of a community to revere its own?”
My opinion has since changed, as the value of the flag to hate groups clearly exceeds the flag’s usefulness as a valid expression of heritage. Yet the conversation cannot end with lowering a symbolic reference to the deep divisions which persist in the United States.
Blaming Dylann Roof’s actions solely on the influence of hate groups is analogous to assigning him a mental illness or an unexplained evil motive for the horrific shooting of men and women at prayer. The debate over the Confederate flag serves as a scapegoat for the general white public to disavow responsibility for addressing the structural causes of racial inequality. The United States shelters the hateful jingoism of white nationalism under the seductive language of heritage. The general white public needs to taste the wine of suffering rather than implicate a piece of cloth.
The current Confederate flag debate will produce a distracting free speech debate. The right of hate groups to organize and advocate for values antithetical to democracy is clearly protected by law. While the activities of these groups are monitored for violent or illegal tendencies, the public can do no more than shame them. Furthermore, bigotry through speech and symbol is an evasive target. Language and meaning will adapt to social acceptability, as President Obama noted with the use of the n-word. The same meaning can be conveyed through a new set of symbols after the Confederate flag. Hate speech should not be the first target of a politically-correct crusade.
This reduction to tolerance versus bigotry is a false dichotomy from an internet-era snack-tivism which equates a good word with social change. Tolerance is necessary but far from sufficient in redressing the damages of centuries of struggle by, injustice toward and marginalization of nonwhite Americans.
Today, the statehouses across the South pulling down their Confederate flags should pull down and reform the following social and political institutions. Only then will they make good on their claim to embrace people of all races:
- Mass incarceration: end mandatory minimums, felony convictions for minor nonviolent crimes, the debt-to-prison pipeline and the school-to-prison pipeline.
- Police militarization: stop the practices of stop-and-frisk, no-knock warrant service by SWAT teams, the use of decommissioned military equipment in street patrols and seeing communities as crime-fighting zones.
- Hypersegregation of schools: stop the undemocratic creation of educational systems which reward those with financial, social or specific emotional resources. Develop universal high-quality, integrated public schools.
- Cookie-cutter gentrification: invent new metrics for urban development which reward the benefiting of the least well-off. Create mixed-use development and deprioritize “broken windows” strategies.
- Voter suppression: stop the artful gerrymandering of districts to reduce the influence of nonwhite voters and expand rather than restrict the fundamental democratic right to the ballot box.
- Exceptionalism: acknowledge the American struggles with gun violence, decaying social institutions and growing inequality are normative human rights problems rather than twisted sources of pride.
Take down these flags, not just the Confederate flag. Take a stand for what can make our country great.