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Government, Politics & Issues

Editor's Weekly: Turning symbols into substance

Confederate battle flag beside the Confederate Monument in front of the South Carolina Statehouse
J. Stephen Conn | Flickr | 2006

Symbols matter, as the groundswell against the Confederate flag  reminded us this week. But even if retailers shun it and South Carolina lowers it, how much substantive difference will that make? That will depend on whether the emotion of the moment reflects a deeper change of heart or a diversion from further action.

The flag debate erupted in Charleston, where images framed the issue. Dylann Roof’s photos made a strong case for the argument that the flag is a white supremacist rallying tool. Pictures from the capitol juxtaposed the flag flying on the grounds with mourners paying respects to the Rev. Clementa Pinckney's body in repose.

In St. Louis, someone spray-painted Black Lives Matter on the Confederate memorial in Forest Park. City officials have been considering whether to move the memorial, one of several symbolic tributes here to the Missourians who sided with the South during the Civil War. Their views were represented more forcefully in state laws that enforced discrimination against African Americans well into the 20th century.

Some say the Confederate battle flag represents the South’s culture and those who served it honorably.  But look at how it’s been deployed in more recent civil rights battles as a symbol of white resistance. In South Carolina , according to an NPR report, “the flag was first flown over the state Capitol dome ... in 1962 to mark the centennial of the start of the Civil War, but many saw it as a reaction to the civil-rights movement and school desegregation.”

Now states and merchandisers are moving away from the flag. That in itself would not prevent a hateful shooter from obtaining a gun. Nor would removal of the Confederate memorial from Forest Park address the issues raised by Ferguson.

But rejection of Confederate symbols could signify that attitudes are changing in substantive ways. It could mean more whites are coming to understand that we must see the world not only through our own experience and intentions, but also through the eyes and lives of others.

In St. Louis, and across the nation, whites and African Americans still live for the most part in different worlds – geographically and by experience. African Americans on average are still statistically doomed to earn less than whites, go to jail more, face more health problems and die earlier. St. Louis is still home to organizations such as the Council of Conservative Citizens, whose racist ideas reportedly attracted Roof’s attention. Earl Holt III, a leader of that group, once served on the St. Louis School Board, as Jo Mannies reported.

The St. Louis region is no longer segregated by law, and almost all St. Louisans abhor racism. But the absence of overt discrimination cannot erase its legacy. White indifference cannot overcome the present day manifestations of past wrongs.

In our image-driven, instant gratification culture, there’s a danger that people will take a symbolic victory as the real thing. It’s a lot easier to attack Confederate symbols than to attack our entrenched problems of racial disparity. But the symbolic change underway could lead to something more substantive – to greater leverage on the past that shaped us and the future we hope to shape.

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