Today, one Confederate flag comes down. Here’s one reason that matters.
[Here are some of my Southern credentials, in case you care: one ancestor was a City Engineer in Columbia a generation after the Civil War, who partnered with one of the architects of the South Carolina Statehouse over which that flag has flown for fifty years. Both of my parents grew up in small Southern towns, themselves raised by parents who grew up in the South, and so on back through the generations on both sides. Several generations of LaMottes were born, lived, and died in Columbia. There are many things about the South that I love and I live here now, although some say Asheville doesn’t count.]
The flag is part of a legacy in multiple ways. One legacy is what I’m calling the “It doesn’t matter . . .” legacy.
During slavery, white Americans said, “We have a right to own slaves and to be free of federal interference, and it doesn’t matter what effect being sold as property, being abused like beasts, being dehumanized has on African Americans. Black pain doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what people of conviction elsewhere, or even other Southerners, think about it. It doesn’t matter whether it tears the country apart.” The law and the authorities endorsed this position.
During Reconstruction and Jim Crow, white Americans said, “We have a right to protect our way of life and protect ourselves, and it doesn’t matter what effects the KKK, the terrorism of lynching, and convict leasing systems have on African Americans.” Black pain doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what people of conviction elsewhere or in the South think about it. And the law and the authorities endorsed this position.
During the Civil Rights Era, white Southerners said, “We have a right to live in the nicer neighborhoods by ourselves, go to the better schools by ourselves, patronize restaurants and motels by ourselves, and it doesn’t matter how African-Americans are held down and humiliated. Black pain just doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how others see this.” And the law and authorities endorsed this position.
In these days, and not just in the South, we have racist drug policies, and are over-incarcerating young black men. In our names, law enforcement officers are militarizing and over-using force in neighborhoods of color. The killer of a white person is many times more likely to get the death penalty than one who kills a black person. And white voices are saying, “Our streets and our officers must be safe at any cost, and it doesn’t matter how this affects African Americans.” Black pain just doesn’t matter. And the law and the authorities endorse this position.
This week, many white Southerners are saying, “The Confederate flag stands for heritage, not hate.” OK, maybe it’s not hate on your part, but it is part of this continuing legacy of indifference to the pain of African Americans. It’s still, “We have a right, and black pain doesn’t matter.” It is, “We have a right to define the flag’s meaning, and it doesn’t matter that what it means to African Americans is that they stand in a legacy of pain and injustice that continues to this day, and that it is not some few racists but the government itself that proudly flies it. It doesn’t matter that the rest of the world sees it this way, as well. Our rights and perspectives are the only ones that matter.”
Today, that flag comes down, despite vocal resistance by some white Southerners. No, it doesn’t solve everything, and that flag will continue to fly high from personal vehicles and yards (free speech). But from now on, the government itself won’t fly it. At least this week, the law and the authorities in a southern state acknowledged black pain and did the right thing – on their own, without a federal act or Supreme Court interference – and that matters a great deal.