The abandonment of the Confederate battle flag by conservative politicians and organizations that previously defended it as a noble symbol of "heritage, not hate" is welcome, if long overdue. And the subsequent move by large corporations to stop selling the flag suggests that we may be experiencing an important cultural shift, that we may be entering a time in which it is no longer deemed acceptable to celebrate nostalgia for an era defined first by slavery and then by racial segregation enforced by officially sanctioned terror.
That kind of cultural change is, of course, a good thing, and the Confederate battle flag's dramatically declining fortunes feel like a significant moment. Still, doing away with official reverence for the flag is largely a symbolic move that doesn't come close to addressing the problems surrounding race in America, including disparities in treatment by the criminal justice system and the resurgence of voter suppression laws and other schemes designed to rig the elections in favor of powerful conservative interests. In recent days, the burning of black churches in Southern states, including one that had previously been burned down by the KKK, is a chilling and tragic reminder that violence aimed at the African-American community, violence with a long history, is not confined to a single act in a single city.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's decision to ask the legislature to take the Confederate battle flag from its position on the statehouse grounds came only after the murders at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. It is a sad fact of political life that it often takes a horrific act to galvanize sufficient political will to make necessary change, often after years of work have prepared the ground for what looks from the outside like a sudden shift. Civil rights activists, clergy, and Black lawmakers in South Carolina have been organizing against the official place of honor for the Confederate battle flag for decades, both before and after the flag was moved from the dome of the state capitol and raised over the Confederate memorial on the statehouse grounds in 2000. That activism continued as recently as two months before the Charleston shooting, when a group of African-American clergy taking part in a national gathering of People for the American Way Foundation's African-American Ministers Leadership Council encircled the flag in protest.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley may be reaping praise for her rising political stock, or for outmaneuvering "the agitators," in the words of one gloating tweet, but this is not really a story about courageous leadership on her part. It is, rather, a story about the GOP leadership finally coming to terms, at least symbolically, with the Republican Party's increasingly untenable position, in an increasingly diverse country, of being in partnership with groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens that foster nostalgia for our white supremacist past and deep resentment about the nation's growing diversity.
In fact, right-wing responses to the Charleston shootings have been a study in political calculation, reflected in the face of RNC chief Reince Priebus looking over Haley's shoulder last week. The Haley press conference was in part an effort to save floundering GOP presidential candidates from dealing with questions about the Confederate flag without distancing themselves from right-wing base voters or GOP activists in South Carolina, an important early primary state.
Initial right-wing responses to the shootings were mind-boggling and important to look at. Some commentators on Fox News downplayed evidence that the murders were racially motivated. Some sought to blame drug use and anti-religious feelings. Some even blamed the murdered Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was also a state senator, based on his positions on reproductive choice and gun control.
National conservative leaders denounced the violence but were seemingly unwilling to engage with the violent racism that was at its root and bizarrely did all they could to find another explanation for the shooting. When asked if the shooting in Charleston was racially motivated, Jeb Bush said, "I don't know." Lindsey Graham tried to take the focus off race and advance the myth that the shootings were a hate crime targeting Christians.
Remarkably, even after the killer's manifesto of racial hatred was released, some right-wing pundits continued to push the idea that the murders were an attack on Christianity, a "Satanic act" by someone with "socialist leanings." That fits the right wing's political narrative, which is grounded in dishonest claims that progressives are enemies of religious freedom. Republicans are counting on that narrative to help carry them into the White House in 2016, in part by reaching out to evangelical voters of color.
But taking down the flag is not going to change the Republican Party's devotion to policies that harm people and undermine our democracy. As President Barack Obama said in his eulogy for the slain Rev. Pinckney, taking down the flag would be "one step in an honest accounting of America's history," but allowing ourselves to "slip into a comfortable silence" on difficult issues facing the country would be "a betrayal of everything Rev. Pinckney stood for."
Voting rights advocates from around the country gathered in Roanoke, Virginia, on the day before Rev. Pinckney's funeral to rally for a renewal of the Voting Rights Act, a centerpiece achievement of the civil rights movement that was gutted by the Supreme Court's conservative justices to the cheers of many Republican politicians. We must make sure that the continuing conversation around the Confederate battle flag does not become a distraction from the very real work that needs to be done to dismantle the legacy of racism and bigotry that that flag represents. It's not enough to take down the flag; we have to take down the discriminatory policies and practices that constitute that legacy. If Republican politicians truly want to reject that legacy, let them start by embracing the Voting Rights Advancement Act.