A Few Thoughts About a Flag

I went to the "Take the Flag Down" rally this past Saturday at the South Carolina State House. I was very happy to see how non-contentious it was (unlike some other rallies I have attended there). According to the facebook event page, almost three thousand people attended. There were large numbers of people of every age, race, and background. Dogs and children were playing through the crowd. The speakers were frequently drowned out by the supporting honks of passing traffic, sedans and pickups, buses and long-haul trucks with their heavy klaxons. In all that crowd I did not see a single counter-protestor.

One interesting common thread that ran through the speakers was that every single one of them -- or at least, every one that I could hear -- opened their speech with a declaration of their South Carolina credentials: how long they or their family had been here, why this place, this State was their identity and home. Some declared ante-bellum roots, some pre-revolutionary, some a mere single decade (!), but all made that declaration.

It's a verbal tic we all have, if we're from here; we stake our claim. There's always a little bit of a strut to it ("*My* family has been here since before Charleston had walls! I have palmetto tree genes in my DNA!") but we do it for a reason. We're declaring our home, declaring that, for better or worse, South Carolina is part of who we are, bred into the bone.

Which is one reason that the "Confederate Flag" -- more specifically, the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia -- has been such a flashpoint. South Carolinians care deeply about the hallmarks of our identity, and for many years now, despite everything, that particular flag has been viewed by many residents of our state as one of those hallmarks, the particular heraldry of their personal lineage. "Heritage not Hate."

Unfortunately, the events of last week brought the dark side of that heraldry into sharp and unmistakable relief. The innocent victims at that Bible study were, unquestionably, among the best people in our state. A statesman, a pastor, a librarian. Community leaders who had dedicated their lives to public service. The sort of people we all want to claim common identity with as fellow South Carolinians. "Our Kind of People." And set up against them in horrible contrast is now a drug-addled terrorist and murderer who took as his personal banner that particular flag.

And in the sharp glare of that contrast the darker history of that flag can no longer be papered over or ignored. If the victims at Mother Emanuel were and are "Our Kind of People," then those who take that flag as their banner cannot be. We can no longer pretend that the flag is not a banner of hate. When every flag in the state was lowered to half-mast except the very flag that the murderer took as his own, when Reverend Pinckney's funeral procession was forced past that unfurled, undipped banner, that made a statement in our name; we must either specifically reject and overturn that statement, or tacitly continue to accept it. We must choose the South Carolina we want: the South Carolina of Clementa Pinckney, or the South Carolina of Dylann Storm Roof. If we want our identity as South Carolinians to be anything other than common identity with a terrorist and a murderer, we must take the flag down.

That nice clear statement -- "We must take the flag down!" -- seems like a natural endpoint. And now, our Governor, Nikki Haley, has called for removal of the Confederate Flag from the grounds of the State Capitol. So, problem solved, right?

Well, no. For one thing, legally speaking, most of the people (Governor Haley, Senator Graham, Senator Scott) who have called most prominently for removal of the flag don't actually have the legal authority to take it down. (Though that hasn't stopped her before). Only the state legislature can legally order the flag taken down, and at least as of this writing, they don't yet have the votes; it will require a two-thirds majority. Still, though, it seems for the first time possible that they may *get* the votes. And when and if they do, that will be a step forward.

But it will be merely a first step; the least we can do. What steps we each take past that we'll all have to decide.

Maybe we wash our hands and pretend we've solved racism by tearing down a symbol. I hope we're all better than that.

Maybe we each can strive to be better people, more like the victims. Maybe we each can try to re-commit to public service. There's a gap to fill.

Maybe we stop tolerating and tacitly endorsing the passive, matter-of-fact racism that we've all run into if we've spent twenty minutes in this state: "He made a lot of racist jokes, but you don't really take them seriously like that. You don't really think of it like that[.]"

And maybe go a step further, and we take a look at the social and economic policies in this state that (possibly?) helped produce that terrorist, and we change them.

  • One line that jumped out at me from Roof's "manifesto" was "[t]he fact is that how good a school is considered directly corresponds to how White it is." Unfortunately, all too often, after generations of deliberate neglect of minority schools in South Carolina -- chronicled in everything from Pat Conroy's novel The Water is Wide to the recent South Carolina Supreme Court decision regarding the Corridor of Shame -- he's not wrong about that. Maybe we take steps to make him wrong. Maybe we increase school funding across all districts in this state, until every child has access to the same quality of education, regardless of race or economic background.
  • It's more than just the schools, though. In the same paragraph where he mentions our unequal schools, he talks about our unequal neighborhoods ("These White people dont even admit to themselves why they are moving. They tell themselves it is for better schools or simply to live in a nicer neighborhood . . ."). Again, Roof is not as wrong as we would like him to be. As anyone who has spent any time driving around our state has seen, our neighborhoods are still quite literally divided, a direct legacy of slavery, of Jim Crow, of segregation and redlining. Maybe if we made better investments into our public institutions -- not just our schools, but our roads, our libraries, our public health care, and all the rest, maybe we'd have a better, less divided State of things, all around.
  • And maybe there are other things we can do. After all, I'm just one guy with an opinion, and it's more than a little presumptuous for any one person to claim to have the one true correct opinion as to how to respond to all this. I've walked or driven past Mother Emanuel a thousand times, but I've never set foot inside it. I'm no expert; I just live here.

    And I do know that we can't choose to prevent all future tragedies, or all future terrorist attacks. But we can choose our identities. We can choose the sort of State we want to live in. It's our State; it's who we are. Let's make the right choice for our selves.