Educating for Democracy: Flag Banning and 'Magical Thinking'

The recent massacre in an iconic Black church in Charleston, South Carolina could be the wake-up call this country needs in order to begin educating all Americans and those who wish to become citizens to acknowledge the importance of the question: why is racism such a blight on America and what can be done about it? [By racism I mean both institutional and individual racism as manifested in the display of the Confederate flag in the South Carolina state capitol and the murder of nine Black people as a personal act of vengeance for an imaginary grievance.]

That there is a systemic pattern of racist behavior in our society, especially evidenced by segregated communities and schools, is undeniable. New York City which, in many respects, is a center for diversity and tolerance, has the most segregated school system in the United States.

One could attribute some of this to class differences as the cost of housing is relentlessly moving upward into the stratosphere of unaffordability for an increasing portion of the population.But today, more than sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, having dark skin still gives license to White society to look at, act toward and treat differently people who are fundamentally the same in all but what should be a superficial aspect of our personalities. Such abnormal behavior is a sign of what I would call Institutionalized Paranoia.

This "condition", particularly in the South, but evident in many other parts of the country is exhibited very often when a Black family moves into a White neighborhood and the residents are persuaded that their property values will go down as a result. But if one were to think at all rationally and not be paranoid, if only a few of the White residents moved out of the neighborhood, it would be completely illogical for the rest to get concerned about property values. Yet as evidenced by segregated housing patterns, many people think this is normal. It cannot be dealt with effectively through Magical Thinking.

The response of the South Carolina state government to the massacre by banning the Confederate flag from public display in the state capitol in Charleston is a perfect example of Magical Thinking. That commercial interests have played along with what I would call a distraction from much more serious racial issues is not surprising. If they are no longer selling Confederate flags, people might not pay more attention to the work practices of these companies: the low wages they pay their employees, and in some cases the slave labor conditions in other countries that provide these suddenly race sensitive businesses with their products. Besides, making symbolic gestures that are attempts to assuage the national outrage over the massacre can, if anything, ramp up Institutionalized Paranoia of people like Dylann Roof. They are convinced that the Obama government is out to get them just as the gun lobby ramps up support against gun control whenever there is the possibility of some sane way of dealing with gun obsession.

To illustrate my point, here are a sample of current websites on Yahoo featuring the sale of Confederate flags:

My own view both of flag-waving, in a way that accuses those who are not enthusiastic flag-wavers as not being true patriots, and the anti-war movements' ritual flag burning is that they are more for show than substance. They can provoke strong reactions but not necessarily effective responses. The root causes of the problems that are evoked by racism cannot be seriously addressed by flag-banning. As a woman I know as a long-time Civil Rights activist told me, of the twenty or so responses Governor Haley could have chosen to react to the murders, my informant rated the banning of the Confederate flag somewhere in the middle. In fact, the Confederate flag did not increase in popularity, particularly in the South, until the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

This was also a period in which Blacks began to make progress in educational and economic opportunities. Elements in White society rebelled against what they saw as their entitlement through the most recognized symbol of the Confederacy: its flag. One could argue, however, that if reasonable people recognize the alienating effects of displaying the Confederate flag in public places and spaces that are supposed to be for all Americans, banning it might be a step in the right direction. Yet since the ban was announced there have been a number of suspicious burnings of Black churches that, if proven to be racially motivated, show how vicious the literal reaction to a symbolic act can be.

There are many other steps that need to be taken if we are to leave the institutionalized paranoia of racism finally behind us: foremost would be a truly enlightened, integrated educational system throughout the country. This might achieve in real terms what is now being dealt with by symbolism. Public schools should have regularly scheduled class discussions on racism: what it really is and why it exists. Adults as well, Black and White, should increase discussions and forums in community organizations, clubs and religious institutions as part of their mission to bring some light into the dark corners of a historical curse. Human beings use symbolism to cope with problems that do not have easy solutions but unless we are willing to deal with the substance behind the symbolism we will make little progress in improving race relations. Instead of banning flags as a panacea for prejudice, political leaders should be opening minds.