Banning Symbols Won’t Ban Hate

Removing the Confederate flags from the Southern United States wouldn’t end racism or violence.

A Confederate flag flies outside the South Carolina State House in Columbia, January 17, 2012
A Confederate flag flies outside the South Carolina State House in Columbia, January 17, 2012 (Reuters/Chris Keane)

Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday sadly seems to be generating less commentary on the pervasiveness of gun crime in America or the perilous state of race relations than it does on the flying of the Confederate colors in the South.

Roof is a white supremacist who said he wanted to start a “race war” by targeting what is one of the oldest black churches in America and a symbol of the struggle for equal rights.

Many things are disconcerting about he did and what he represents, beyond slaying nine unarmed Americans in a church.

The shooter was an unemployed 21-year old with an allegedly abusive father and an unhealthy fascination for apartheid-era Rhodesia and South Africa. It isn’t difficult to imagine that he found in blacks a scapegoat for his own sad life. The country and state that produces dangerous young men like Roof should consider if there isn’t more that can be done in terms of education, child protection and gun control to prevent radicalization or at least stop racists like him from getting guns.

Roof had been arrested for minor offenses twice before Wednesday and told several acquaintances he was “planning something crazy” — yet no one reported him to the authorities. The New York Times quotes one friend saying, “He was a racist; but I don’t judge people.”

If racism isn’t grounds to judge people where Roof lived, what is?

These are some of the issues and questions that should concern South Carolina and the United States right now. And they do. But an awful lot of noise is taken up by a side discussion about flags.

One picture of Roof showed him sitting on the hood of his parents’ car with an ornamental license plate with a Confederate flag on it. In another, he posed with the flag and a handgun.

The flag didn’t make him do it but to the extent that it symbolizes Roof’s hatred and white oppression of blacks, it is relevant.

It is ridiculous that 150 years after the Civil War ended, the battle flag of states that failed to preserve slavery should still fly on government property.

For supporters, the Confederate flag is a symbol of Southern identity and heritage. Most who fly it don’t mean harm. But their desire to assert that identity should be outweighed by the apprehension of blacks who would not be free today if the makers of that flag had their way.

The Confederate flag was removed from South Carolina’s capitol dome only fifteen years ago. But a smaller flag was installed — by law — on the State House lawn.

It does not belong there.

But there is something unsettling about so many non-Southerners suddenly calling for Confederate flags to be removed.

White Americans from other parts of the country sometimes look down on the South as a backward and illiberal place even if they themselves live in largely white New York suburbs or a gated California community. Many of America’s multiracial big cities are still effectively segregated. Blacks underperform compared to other races in many ways: in terms of education, job prospects and family stability. Race is an issue in America as a whole and race relations remain problematic in cities and states across the country.

There are many reasons for this, not all of which are properly understood. And there are many things that could be done or tried to improve the situation.

What is not going to do much good is ban a divisive flag and then forget about the problem until the next tragedy occurs. That is a feel-good substitute for doing something meaningful.

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