The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Confederate flag is just a distraction

Don't let politicians congratulate themselves for symbolic changes after the murders in Charleston.

Taking down the Confederate flag is just a symbolic victory (Rainier Ehrhardt/AP)

The lasting effect of Dylann Roof’s terrorist attack on nine African American women and men at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church now looks likely to be the removal of the Confederate flag from public display. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has called on the state legislature to strike the flag from the state’s capitol grounds. Elected leaders elsewhere, as well as major corporations, have all begun to “divest” themselves of symbols of the Confederacy, a century and a half after the Civil War ended.

Their actions are merely diversions. They are addressing the least important cause of Roof’s racist murder spree. Focusing on flags and monuments draws our attention from the hard work that is required to reduce the burden of racism in American society. And the public’s attention span is so very short that I wonder how many people will care after the flag frenzy passes and the nine funerals are over.

The #TakeItDown movement is dizzyingly seductive and grows in ever-increasing intensity, blotting out all other concerns about the Charleston shootings. The South Carolina legislature, which made itself the sole authority on flying the flag after protests in the 1990s, is moving to evict it from its place of honor. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley ordered the removal of the battle flag and three other Confederate symbols from his state’s capitol grounds in Montgomery. The symbolic power of taking the flag down in Montgomery is undeniable: It was the first capital of the Confederate States of America, and it was there that southerners approved the Constitution of the Confederate States, with its prohibition against the passage of any law “denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves,” and other protections for slavery.

The Confederate flag on display, from 1938 to today

WASHINGTON, DC- JUNE 21: A confederate flag reflected in the window of a gift shop that sells them in Seligman, Arizona. The Confederate flag (aka the Rebel Flag) can be seen in plain view in almost any part of the United States although sightings are more common in the South. Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

[The Confederate flag isn’t just offensive, it’s also treasonous]

Other public displays of the flag and Confederate symbols across the country are being challenged, as well. Confederate statues in Charleston, Baltimore, and Austin, Tex., have been anonymously adorned with “Black Lives Matter” graffiti and signs. Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans, has requested that the city remove the Robert E. Lee pillar that looks down on one of the city’s best-known landmarks. In Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced that he is phasing out Confederate flag license plates (aided by the Supreme Court’s decision two weeks ago that Texas could prohibit license plates for the Sons of the Confederacy). Major businesses, including Wal-Mart, Amazon and eBay, have announced that they will no longer sell Confederate paraphernalia. Prominent flagmakers have said they will no longer make them.

Expressing opinions by denouncing monuments, spraying graffiti or burning Confederate flags is a First Amendment right. And vanquishing Civil War symbols that feed antebellum fantasies of moonlight and magnolias is a worthy cause. But protesters shouldn’t confuse mere symbols, however rooted in hatred, for racial realities. In 2008, many Americans breathed a sigh of relief that the country was now “post-racial” because Barack Obama was elected president. Whites thought there would be no more tense debates over race, African Americans and other people of color thought equality of opportunity and justice would flow like a mighty stream. We soon discovered, however, that Obama’s election was only symbolic, a cosmetic adornment of an unjust system. By every concrete measure, ordinary African Americans have suffered during the Obama years. They have experienced double-digit unemployment rates even when overall unemployment rates subsided. Jobs in the public sector and in manufacturing, a historical haven for black workers, have been reduced; jobs in growing economic sectors have not materialized. Blacks are told they don’t have the skills even for jobs that don’t require skills, just on the job training. The Voting Rights Act and other measures to end education and employment discrimination have been undermined by the Supreme Court with no congressional relief in sight. Most significantly, the killings of unarmed African Americans by white civilians and law enforcement officers have become an almost common occurrence. The killing of the Mother Emanuel Nine is the latest horrible tragedy Africans Americans must endure.

We must not allow politicians to soothe us rhetorically instead of helping us actually, to congratulate themselves on symbolic victories even as they make no effort at substantive ones. Charleston has already named the library where murder victim Cynthia Hurd worked in her memory, but she was also the president of the Septima P. Clark Corporation, a nonprofit that funded programs for public housing residents. If only the city had endowed adult literacy and GED programs modeled on Clark’s legendary work as “Freedom’s Teacher.”

Instead of just voting on the flag and moving on, let the South Carolina legislature enact the murdered Sen. Clementa Pinckney’s bill for a state minimum wage law of $10.10. His mother worked minimum wage jobs nearly her whole life at the Ramada Inn, convenience stores and daycare centers in rural Jasper County, S.C. Not everyone has a college degree and a white-collar desk job, Pinckney said in support of the bill, but they still need to save for the future, feel secure, and send children to school.

In Washington, there could be no more fitting memorial to the Mother Emanuel Nine than a new Voting Rights Act. Or funding for a public education program that teaches students about slavery — not just the horror of it all, but that unpaid African American labor made the successful economic development of the United States of America possible. Or a targeted jobs program for poor women and men that would include African Americans, people of color and whites. And which member of Congress has the courage to fight for gun control legislation?

When talk about symbols of the Confederacy has run its course on cable news, inevitably the media will crow about “progress” and then divert our attention to some other breaking story. When the politicians and presidential candidates have run out of empathetic rhetoric and fervent speeches, their inaction will be thunderous. Taking down the symbols without dismantling the structures of racism will not destroy the master’s house.

CORRECTION: This post originally stated that the pillar in Lee Circle in New Orleans looked down on a location where the “White League” killed black members of the city’s newly integrated police force during Reconstruction. In fact, that happened elsewhere in New Orleans, not in Lee Circle.