I’ve been waiting for this moment – the moment I’m watching on CNN right now, on July 9th – to comment on this trinity of issues. Obviously, they’re all intimately related with one another, but more importantly, they’re all about our changing national character.
In my blogs over the years, I’ve touched on lots of things, some of them a bit closer to the “legalities” of my civil rights and employment practice for working people in New Jersey, and some of them a bit more “esoteric” and abstract. Obviously, the issue of the South Carolina confederate flag, the shooting in a black church and the moving eulogy by President Obama are certainly at the crux of any conversation about civil rights in America. Any conversation about civil rights in America is intimately connected with my practice, my politics and my proclivities as a civil rights trial lawyer.
But more, as those of you who faithfully followed my blogs over the years already know, I like to think about a better world than the one we have. In a recent blog celebrating the Supreme Court of the United States’ decision legitimizing same sex marriage as the law of the land, I talked about the fact that as a Star Trek fan from childhood, I dream of a better world in which issues of race, ethnicity, national origin and gender are no longer “drivers” for how human beings relate to one another.
I’ll say it again here. The developments of today suggest that the national character of America is changing for the better. We’re a long way from the harmony on the bridge of the Enterprise, but we’re closer than we’ve ever been. In certain blogs over the last few years, I’ve been more pessimistic, and I’m sure I’ll have reason to be pessimistic again in the future. You can review my other Journey to Justice entries for pessimism related to southern states withdrawing laws protecting homosexuals, with southern and midwestern states enacting laws that encourage or protect discrimination against homosexuals, with ignorant and hateful conduct by segments of our society directed against any vulnerable minority population. Certainly, the conservative bloc of the Supreme Court and the more vociferous and inane right wing crazies who are their political sponsors and allies give me consistent reason to be pessimistic.
But then there are developments like today.
Recently, there was a massacre in a black church in South Carolina which garnered immediate national attention because the massacre was intimately connected with the confederate flag. A reverend and his bible study group was killed in cold blood, in the midst of prayer. President Obama, in a moving eulogy which was one of his finer moments as President, spoke about how a flag didn’t “cause these deaths.” Yet the flag is a reminder, for nearly all of us, of systemic oppression and racial subjugation. Symbols matter. Removing the flag is neither political correctness, nor an insult to confederate deaths. Removal of the symbol is a recognition that the cause for which the south fought – slavery – was a wrong cause.
It’s tragic, on the one hand, that it took this massacre for South Carolina to have its “moment” of clarity. What kind of state are we, South Carolina had to ask itself. What kind of people are we? Then again, don’t we always seem to need painful, even tragic, lessons, to learn anything of value? Not that tragedies always successfully teach us anything – we still yet to go bravely back into space – but sometimes, even though it’s the hard way, we do learn.
I watched some legislators, including some republicans, moved to tears as they debated the taking down of the flag. The very fact that there was even a debate at all is, in a way, tragic. It suggests that there were a number of legislators who don’t care that the symbol is one as inextricably linked to racism, hatred and death as the swastika. I won’t forgive or excuse any lawmaker – or really, any person – who claims that they don’t “understand” why the confederate flag represents such a symbol. I won’t excuse or forgive people who claim that the flag’s symbology is more linked to “noble resistance to oppression,” or some other bullshit, because no person that says that is telling the truth.
Every person who suggests that they don’t agree with, don’t understand or don’t recognize the institutional racism of that flag is a liar, pure and simple. In addition to being a liar, they’re also assuming that you, the listener, are a moron.
Whatever the confederate flag might have once meant prior to the institution of hostilities in the civil war, whatever it subjectively meant to certain people whom weren’t necessarily hateful, it doesn’t really matter. The flag is now what it is and it will always be that. Hopefully, soon, across The United States, it will be a historic footnote, just as the Nazi flag is. That’s not to say that there aren’t human filth who use the Nazi flag still, but those people are in the minority. There are no states which would display the flag, no institutions which would legitimately display the flag, and hopefully, the confederate flag will get there, too.
Symbols mean a great deal. No matter what you think about our country, when you see the stars and stripes, you have an emotional reaction. It’s impossible not to. Look through any book on the history of symbols and you’ll immediately recognize the truth of this statement. Symbols, even more than words, have power, because symbols are visual. They stir the amygdala, that portion of our brain responsible for primitive emotions, before they even register in our reasoning centers.
It’s time for the confederate flag to go. It doesn’t need to be retired with honor. It doesn’t need to be lovingly restored, folded and put in a place of respect. It doesn’t need to be saluted or cried over. Anybody alive in the year 2015 has no business attempting to link either their lives, their politics or their histories to that flag. No one has a “stake” in that flag, no matter what their ancestors did during the Civil War. Should the flag be in a museum the same way that Nazi paraphernalia is in a museum, to teach lessons? Absolutely. But does it need to be treated with any more dignity than that? No. To do so would be to dishonor the very point of removing it from circulation.
I prepare this blog on the 9th when the signing of the Bill to remove the flag is scheduled for 4:00 pm today. No doubt that signing will be accompanied by much commentary, from a number of people, but it’s an event whose time has finally come.
For those people who claim that the flag is still somehow valid and was simply “hijacked” by racists, I say this.
The confederate flag was never hijacked by racists; it was created by racists. That which “is” can be nothing other than what it is.