South Carolina removes the Confederate flag it raised in 1962
“I don’t believe slavery ended in 1865, I believe it just evolved.”
America is talking about race right now. If your friends, family, coworkers aren’t talking about it, bring it up. It’s not an easy subject to broach. Here’s a place you can start: the Confederate flag. Most of America (75%, including the Southern states) agrees that the Confederate flag should be banned from public places. Great — yes it should be banned. What is more important is that we give more attention to and recognize better all that that flag encompasses. Did you know that the Confederate flag gained the popularity it’s notorious for not during the Civil War but in the Civil Rights era? I was surprised when I learned that last week but assumed I was relatively alone in my ignorance; however as I’ve raised the issue with peers, few understood much about the flag’s history. The Confederate flag didn’t even emerge in most of the Southern states until the 1950s. South Carolina didn’t start flying the Confederate flag at its capitol until 1962.
As we dislodge the confederate flag, we must remember it not as vestige of family legacies or a historical artifact. Its popularity grew directly as a symbol of resistance to integration and as an expression of hostility to civil rights. This fact and many more were impressed on me by Bryan Stevenson’s meditative, probing interview with the Marshall Project published the week following the massacre in Charleston. Stevenson shows us how much work we have ahead to end racism in our country; and especially that as part of the honest conversation we undertake, America must first grasp a more expansive, more clear-eyed understanding of our history. Stevenson tells us how to begin that undertaking:
1. We need more recognition of and honest dealing with the era of white supremacy and terrorism that followed slavery
America has a narrative of denied opportunity and fair treatment to millions of people. That narrative began with slavery and with slave-owners’ invention of white supremacy, their invention of ideas of racial difference to justify ownership of another person. My public education taught me that slavery and oppression of African Americans was something our country had dealt with and grown past: we hold up our 13th amendment and our Emancipation Proclamation as symbols of equality, but as Stevenson has said, these writings do not deal with the narrative of racial difference and white supremacy and in doing so, stunted our path to reparation.
Stevenson and others have contrasted America’s refusal to deal with slavery with Germany’s reconciling with the Holocaust. There are more than 30,000 plaques in German towns and cities commemorating lives lost during the Holocaust. In the South there are countless symbols commemorating Confederate generals. No public memorial commemorates the thousands of African Americans lynched in America. I have a teacher friend who received a grant to study how German schools teach the Holocaust so she can bring a more comprehensive curriculum back to her school. Hearing that made me reflect on my own education in public middle school and high school. We learned about the Holocaust. We learned about the Civil War; later we read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s biography. I don’t remember if we learned about racism, about violence against non-whites. Stevenson tells us why we need to do more:
Lots of countries had slaves, but they were mostly societies with slaves. We became something different, we became a slave society. We created a narrative of racial difference to maintain slavery. And our 13th amendment never dealt with that narrative. It didn’t talk about white supremacy. The Emancipation Proclamation doesn’t discuss the ideology of white supremacy or the narrative of racial difference, so I don’t believe slavery ended in 1865, I believe it just evolved. It turned into decades of racial hierarchy that was violently enforced — from the end of reconstruction until WWII — through acts of racial terror.
The North and the Congress basically gave up on equality for African Americans, and that set us on a course that we have not yet recovered from. [The Equal Justice Initiative] been really focused on redefining that era — at the beginning of the 20th century and the end of the 19th century — as an era shaped by terrorism. Lynchings were not acts directed at particular individuals, they were acts directed at the entire African American community. And in that respect it was racial terrorism. A white person being hanged was not the same as an African American being lynched. The violence against African Americans was a message to the entire black community. I think we’ve got to deal with that a lot more honestly.
2. Dylan Roof’s actions are a painful reminder of why we must weigh the present moment in the context of our history as a slave society
Dylan Roof was born in 1994. He grew up after slavery ended, after Civil Rights happened, after Loving v. Virginia — after we had “dealt” with systemic inequality and put in place equal protections for all. So how do we get a 21-year-old so indoctrinated with racism and hatred? The media is not letting people get away with propagating the story that Roof is just “one of these whacked out kids”. He is a product of an America that has failed to overcome the lie of racial difference and of white supremacy.
Stevenson chronicles the systemic connections between our history as a slave society and the present day in which Roof grew up: there is no separating our history of racial terror with the murders in Charleston, with the way “black men and boys are treated by police, by schools, by the state”:
If current trends continue, one in three black men are expected to spend time in prison at some point in their lives. The Great Recession wiped out twice as much black wealth as it did white, and the raw numbers are even more stark: Post-recession median household wealth for a white family in 2014 was almost $142,000, down from $192,500. The median wealth for black households had fallen to $11,000 from $19,200. There are 1.5 million black men “missing” in America, because they are either dead or in prison.
Stevenson says, don’t talk about giving Dylan Roof the death penalty. Talk about the fact that the death penalty is another example of America victimizing whites and not protecting blacks. The death penalty is a tool of a system baked in racial inequality. In Alabama, 65% of all murder victims are black, and yet 80% of all death sentences go to murders whose victims were white.
Sociology professor Denis O’Hearn recently issued a reminder to not overlook the great gap of socio-economic status when we talk about “diversity”. He questions whether life is unequivocally better today for black youth than it was before the Civil Rights movement; and recounts an anecdote from social activist/former Yale professor Staughton Lynd: “the African-Americans he meets today in Youngstown, Ohio, are far worse off than the young people he knew in Mississippi in 1964. Young blacks then had hope. They lived in communities that included doctors and teachers. The future looked better, despite killings and overt racism.”
2015 is the year I learn that slavery and segregation and large scale racial injustice is not a historic narrative, it is a story of our American present. Charleston, the continual tally of black youth and men killed unjustly by police acting in racially biased ways: the facts pile and point that discrimination is not subliminal understory of American life, but is fact and inherent character. We also understand more than ever how bias works and that it is baked into all human interaction and institutions (e.g. mass incarceration, public education system, housing segregation) that favor the white in-group. Our knowledge and answers about the present operations of racism accumulate, and yet more questions surface that are harder to answer. What has to change? When will we outgrow our systems of segregation, of racism, of white supremacy?
This conversation isn’t new, but aspects are new to me; in part because as a person of white, privileged experience, I have to be taught how to have an honest conversation about race. I remember years ago choosing to lead college students on a trip to southeast Texas and southern California to study exploitative labor practices instead of going with the Civil Rights tour of the South. At the time I likened the latter to a history lesson and the former a more relevant pursuit of social justice. I am ashamed of that; I acknowledge my misplaced naïveté and failure to recognize the inextricability of present day oppression with our actions of the past. I am relearning our country’s race narrative, and learning in some ways for the first time my own relation to race.
As this conversation continues to unfold and touch all corners of our country, look for ripples of change. One may be that we’re hearing our President talk more openly about race. Another: the Confederate flag will be removed from the South Carolina state house by tomorrow. We also saw on June 25 for the first time the Supreme Court recognize unconscious prejudice — and acknowledge that regardless of evidence of intentional discrimination, systems can be inherently discriminatory. We can grow these ripples into a sea change by examining with honesty our own personal relationships to race with honesty and continuing to raise the conversation.