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In the wake of the racially-aggravated shooting in an historic African American church in South Carolina, USA, the Confederate flag still flew in the South Carolina capitol. A blatant symbol of segregationist pride continued to fly high in a country currently in the midst of an intense race relations debate. To be ignorant of its implications of racial hatred is inexplicable and disgraceful, but its removal alone will hardly change anything.
Between 1861 and 1865, during the American Civil War, the Confederate flag represented seven pro-slavery states in the American South; in 2015, it is difficult to see how it can be anything more than an aggressive reminder of an era of white supremacy. It is unacceptable that the authorities proudly fly a flag that tells black people that, not long ago, the state they live in did not think them worthy of the same rights as white people. It is even more unacceptable that, particularly in the context of the heightened consciousness of institutional racism and police brutality, it carries the implication that even the authorities themselves are not on their side. This feeling was likely exacerbated by the fact that, whilst two state flags atop the South Carolina State House were respectfully lowered to half-staff following the shooting, the Confederate flag remained at full mast. In other words, in the aftermath of an appalling racist attack, this symbol of oppression flew unapologetically higher than the rest, almost as a reminder of how some things still have not changed. Indeed, as the past overlooked the present from the top of the state capitol, the alienation and persecution of the African-American population showed no signs of slowing down.
Images of suspect Dylann Roof posing with the flag have surfaced on a white supremacist website, and the Ku Klux Klan also uses it to propel their racist messages. These are not examples of idle hate groups but, as is devastatingly clear, the perpetrators of horrific racially motivated violence. They have recognised its symbolism and flaunted it; therefore why does the Confederate flag still fly? It is supposedly a matter of heritage and identity; many white people deny it is a symbol of racism but one of southern pride. Whether this is a genuine sentiment or not, the fact is that the country has had to concern itself more with the former than with the latter. Yet in my view this is the fundamental poignancy of this issue: no amount of racist rhetoric – or murders – will ever have more value than the testimony of the white American. If they say the flag represents freedom, it represents freedom, and any evidence to the contrary is simply an anomaly.
Ultimately, it is the USA’s insistence on a flawless and righteous self image that is impeding substantive change. Avoidance of debates on race means that inequality continues without being checked, and explicit symbols of racial hatred are legitimised. South Carolina governor Nikki Haley has called for the removal of the flag, branding it a ‘deeply offensive symbol of a brutally offensive past’, and Republican politician Mitt Romney is also in support. However the reality is that the Confederate flag should have been taken down years ago, and calls for its removal now will not even come close to mending the country’s problem with racism. Even if an explicit endorsement of oppression disappears, remnants of the culture that tolerated it will endure. The removal of the flag will not remove the sentiments that exist in people’s minds, which are more harmful. This is why it is essential for this symbolic act to be a precursor to further change, heralding a fundamental shift in race relations. It needs to be viewed as a step in the right direction, rather than a temporary solution to mounting tensions and racially-motivated crimes.
The Confederate flag is an uncomfortable reminder of the past that only serves to alienate the USA’s African-American community. Although the necessary action would be shamefully overdue, it would demonstrate both sensitivity and a willingness to confront the country’s deep-rooted racism. However for this to have any meaning at all, it cannot be an isolated act, but the first of many steps towards better race relations.