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Taking Down a Symbol of Hate

A group called "Virginia Flaggers" raise the Confederate battle flag on a pole near Interstate 95 in Chester, Virginia, on September 28, 2013.

I’m at a complete and frustrating loss to comprehend this week’s unraveling of the Confederate flag in South Carolina.

Chanting “bring it down,” protestors gathered Tuesday in Columbia, South Carolina, as state legislators began a debate that most likely will result in the removal of the Confederate battle flag—a red field with an extended blue cross outlined with white stripes and studded with 13 white stars to represent the Confederate states in the Civil War—from the memorial outside the South Carolina State Capitol building. To be specific, the flag flapping on the South Carolina Capitol grounds is the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. But all those stars and bars look so similar as to render them all indistinguishable symbols of hatred.

I never imagined any of them would come down in the South, certainly not this quickly and suddenly. For as long as I can remember—all the way back to my North Carolina childhood—the Stars and Bars of Dixie have lurked on the fringes of my conscience like some ghostly relic of a time and place that never actually existed.

The NAACP has been marching against and protesting the flag since, well, when hasn’t it been marching against and protesting the flag? For decades, the civil rights organization has waged a lonely, largely overlooked economic boycott of South Carolina, urging tourists and businesses not to vacation or do business in the state.

“We cannot have the Confederate flag waving in the state capitol,” said NAACP President Cornel Brooks earlier this week during a news conference in Charleston. “Some will assert that the Confederate flag is merely a symbol of years gone by, a symbol of heritage and not hate. But when we see that symbol lifted up as an emblem of hate, as a tool of hate, as an inspiration for hate, as an inspiration for violence, that symbol has to come down.”

I can’t avoid going to South Carolina—or seeing the flag, which flutters everywhere—because I have family down there. That banner of hate used to be the first thing I’d notice, whether I was riding past the State Capitol building or shopping for barbecue sauce.

But now it seems that the impossible is about to happen. Not only in South Carolina, either; the anti-flag movement is also sweeping across Dixie. In Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) called for the elimination of the flag from the state’s license plates. Then, the Republican Speaker of the Mississippi House, Philip Gunn, issued a statement calling for the removal of the Confederate emblem from the Mississippi state flag. And most shockingly, on Wednesday, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) ordered the flag and three other symbols of the Confederacy removed from the state’s Capitol grounds.

What is going on?

Yes, of course, I’ve noticed the news: A 21-year-old white gunman confessed last week to the cold-blooded murder of nine black Christian worshipers—Cynthia Hurd, 54; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49; Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., 74; Rev. Sharonda Singleton, 45; and Myra Thompson, 59—in Charleston, South Carolina, as they attended a Wednesday night prayer service at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

As the story unfolded, a shocked nation learned that the alleged shooter had posed on Facebook with a variety of racist memorabilia, including flags of apartheid-era South Africa, pre-liberation Rhodesia—now Zimbabwe—and, you guessed it, a license plate that depicted various versions of the treasonous Stars and Bars battle flag of the Confederacy. Federal officials said Wednesday they believe the shooting was a racially motivated and that the Justice Department is likely to file federal hate crime charges against Dylann Roof, 21, who already faces nine counts of murder and could receive the death penalty in state court.

The juxtaposition of imagery—a white man with guns and the Confederate flag—is more than ample evidence to convict him of racism in the court of public opinion. This has been reflected on social media; #TakeDownTheFlag and #takeitdown emerged as trending topics on Twitter soon after the shooting. Almost immediately, outrage over the murderous rampage morphed into anger at the symbol of the alleged perpetrator’s evil hatred: that red, white, and blue banner. Politicians—including Republican presidential candidates—climbed on the bandwagon. When Walmart, Amazon, Sears, eBay, and NASCAR condemned the flag, the trifecta of social media, temperature-taking politics, and big business was complete. The flag cannot fly against such headwinds. But in my mind’s eye, something is missing. I have questions without answers. What most befuddles me is why all the attention is on this single, racist symbol. What about dealing with the manifold ways in which our daily lives are polluted by institutionalized racism?

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson shares my skepticism. He wrote that real change will only come when people exhibit a willingness to seek substantive shifts in action:

But we need to go beyond speeches and symbols. Law enforcement should subject white racist organizations to the same surveillance and scrutiny as groups devoted to jihad. Governments at all levels should enforce fair housing and employment laws as vigorously as they enforce the Patriot Act. Police departments and court systems must be compelled to administer justice equally—with African Americans, too, considered innocent until proven guilty.

Our society will end racism when it stops being racist. Not a minute sooner.

Maybe this is the beginning—the moment of change. Maybe the removal of the Confederate flag heralds the dawn of racial enlightenment. Maybe the deaths of nine churchgoing black folks have convinced flag-waving white folks who stood by their symbol all this time to open their hearts and minds to the nature of racism in America. Maybe the day after the flag comes down in South Carolina, racism will begin to evaporate across the South and the entire nation.

I hope so, but forgive me for expressing wariness. I fear it’s easier to burn a symbol than to change the hearts that long adored it.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.