The confederate flag is slated to come down over the capitol of South Carolina–long overdue and worth the celebration. Public opinion was enflamed to this political movement by the terrorist attack at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, resulting in the death of 9 people. While the flag is coming down, the racist ideology that it represents won’t go in a museum, just underground.
In our 24/7 media saturated world, an event like the Charleston massacre takes over the airwaves, igniting public debate and sometimes–like with the flag–can result in a groundswell of movement that results in real change. Sometimes, like in the weeks after the Newtown massacre, the public pressure to create political change isn’t enough to overcome obstructionist policies and plays.
When we are done celebrating this latest victory, remember that the flag is gone from the capitol, but Dylann Roof has yet to be convicted of the terror attack, and the racist hate groups that radicalized him operate unabated. Just 2 days ago the prosecutor in Roof’s case reminded us he is innocent until proven guilty. I get that this is how the justice system goes, but it is a real reminder that in the furor over the flag little has been done to increase the accountability for domestic terrorists. This is not over.
Symbols play an important role in society, especially because we are an image based culture. Simply put–optics matter. At their heart, though, symbols are the visual representation of some object or idea. Here is a graphic called a semantic triangle that illustrates this:
In South Carolina, we can pull down the flag, but that has not actually destroyed the ideology of white supremacy that the flag represents. In the weeks since the debate over the flag began, there was a sharp spike in sales of confederate flags, and despite Nascar’s best effort to eradicate the flag at it’s latest race, their flag exchange program was a bust.
Dozens of articles and hours of information have painted a clear historical line from the white supremacist ideology in the civil war, through segregation, past burning crosses and leading into the still-active and quite deadly white supremacist groups that operate in America today. The flags innocent appearance in Lynard Skynard t-shirts and Dukes of Hazards episodes are not separate from the more nefarious incarnation of the flag–same flag, same southern pride. The politicians that resurrected the flag during segregation explicitly intentionally tied the symbol to southern pride in it’s tradition of segregation and slavery so that a million –sometime unwitting–voices would keep their message alive.
The wave of public pressure on this issue has come to wipe the flag off the pole.The flag is down, the referent is gone, but the ideology persists and there is not groundswell to address the real perpetrators. The internet hate machine, the very real domestic terrorist groups who have killed more Americans than ISIS, The kings of hate who cozy up to republicans. The flag is gone, but hate survives.
So celebrate this small victory in the summer sun, but don’t forget that there still lurks terror beneath. We’ve going to need more sustained public engagement. We’re going to have to admit that the most deadly terror attacks to Americans are perpetrated not by ISIS, but by US militia groups. We’re going to need a bigger boat.