Dylann Roof's massacre of innocent, prayerful African Americans in a Charleston, South Carolina, church forced the Confederate battle flag back into the national dialogue. Roof's brazen act of domestic terrorism led a number of Southern conservatives, including some prominent elected officials, to call for the removal of the flag from all manner of public buildings. These calls perhaps mark the beginning of a new period of enlightenment among some. But let's keep our eye on the ball. I fear that all of the attention on the flag provides cover to politicians who want to ignore the larger problem. Some of the same politicians talking about bringing down the flag are doing so to avoid talking about the proliferation of guns.
Roof was able to do what he did not just because he is a racist. He committed this heinous act because he is a racist who had easy access to a gun that allowed him to marry his warped fact- and context-free view of Black people (and Jews and immigrants) with a bravado that only a gun can provide. Yes, the Confederate battle flag was his symbol. But it was the gun that created the tragedy.
The flag is a symbol of hate. No amount of historical revisionism can undo the fact that it was created to represent a movement to maintain slavery and the subjugation of African Americans. Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America, declared in a speech before the Virginia Succession Convention, "The great truth, I repeat, upon which our system rests, is the inferiority of the African. The enemies of our institutions ignore this truth." Secession, and the battle flag created to symbolize it, was built on a foundation of racism and white supremacy. Allusions to "states' rights" or "heritage" are simply attempts to apply historical deodorant to cultural stench.
It is a shame and a disgrace that there had to be a mass killing to get some people to understand the symbolic power of that flag. But let's not give so much energy to fighting a flag. The more profound and badly needed fight should be about America's bloodlust at the barrel of a gun. It's now pretty easy to be courageous and call for the flag to be removed. Far more courage needs to be mustered to deal with the gun lobby, which cowers otherwise intelligent people into pathetic political positions.
The gun lobby is the most powerful force in America. Its ability to generate fear and irrational behavior among allegedly intelligent elected officials and others who rush to defend it is amazing. Their power is so profound that Southern conservatives would rather throw the Confederate battle flag under the bus than talk about the real and pervasive issue of gun proliferation. Let that marinate for a while. The Confederate battle flag, a heralded symbol of Southern pride and heritage that has served as a foundational piece of Southern culture, is being taken down after more than 150 years so that politicians don't have to deal with the real issue of guns in America. Pulling down that flag can't happen without its juxtaposition with a more powerful force: the gun lobby.
America will never be fully free until we deal with this very real issue.
Michael K. Fauntroy is an associate professor of political science at Howard University in Washington, D.C. His next book, More Than Just Partisanship: Conservatism and Black Voter Suppression, is forthcoming. He blogs at MichaelFauntroy.com.