The Flag is the End of the Beginning

When the confederate battle flag was removed from the capitol grounds in South Carolina last week, it was a symbolic act involving a symbolic emblem. Lest we think symbolism unimportant, remember that Germany suppressed and made illegal all Nazi sympathy and imagery after World War II. Expunging images alone does not suppress hate, but channeling hate out of the mainstream can have an appropriate and chilling effect.

That the most potent symbol of white supremacy flew over a southern state capitol more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, only to have politicians defend it as a source of ancestral pride, is as good a summary of American race relations circa 2015 that I can muster. Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose new book on race in America, Between the World and Me, comes out today, reminds us that rather than perverting the flag, the Charleston killer just took its message to the logical endpoint: the minimization and stealing of black life.

If I were to hazard a guess, though, the removal of the confederate flag was just the end of the beginning of this country’s latest grappling with the dignity and rights of black Americans. It’s been almost a year since the killing of Michael Brown and the subsequent protests in Ferguson that drew national attention to the extraordinary police brutality that exists in black communities, and there have been few meaningful public actions to change that reality. If anything, things have gotten somewhat worse: as Shaun King points out, the police in the US killed twice as many people in the month of July as there were total murders combined in Germany and the UK in the same period.

There is an educational component to all of this that goes beyond the fact that this reality is what our children navigate everyday before and after getting to school. First, what we are experiencing now is not a new Civil Rights struggle, but merely our generation's extension of the same one we've been engaged with for hundreds of years. The social progress of the last generation lured us into a false sense of complacency that infected the way we talk about race to our children. The concept of “colorblindness,” which in its most anodyne form created an uneasy sense of harmony, and at its most treacherous led to other means of social control, was the dominant approach to race when I was growing up. To be sure, it has its appeal. I was able to grow up as a white kid in a racially diverse community with the perception that all that “race stuff” was in the past. The same colorblindness that was supposed to induce comity was actually just a new kind of screen between my experiences and the lives of others, as other writers of many races have chronicled.

Coates’s new book, which is structured as a missive to his own black son about the reality of being a man of color in America, dismisses the comfort of colorblindness. It is a return to a more direct discussion about race that disappeared from white America during my childhood, but was never allowed to leave communities of color, as only white people have the privilege of being “colorblind.” When New York Magazine chronicled a debate between Coates and a white democratic politician at the Aspen Ideas Festival, the writer noted that there had been:

some turn in the politics of race … the old Clintonite phrasings were failing. In their place was a more radical language, of structuralism and supremacy. Now that language has a place in Aspen.

That such language now “has a place in Aspen” is basically code for “privileged white people are talking about it.”

Readers of this blog will not be surprised that I’m thrilled about that trend, because white supremacy and racism were created by and perpetuated by a white majority, and the only way that we as allies can help to dismantle systems of oppression is if we become more comfortable engaging in the truth of their existence. If you don’t know how to do that, you’re not alone. It takes years of reflection and courage to get to a place where you feel comfortable engaging in that kind of work and discussion. It would be an enormous mistake, though, to allow another generation of American children to grow up under the illusion that racism is a thing of the past. Coates’s epistle to his son should be a model for us all, as the next generation of children must be prepared to confront the brutal realities of our world, live with dignity, and struggle without losing hope.