Many people are applauding calls for the removal of the Confederate Flag from the State Capitol in South Carolina and Walmart’s decision not to carry items with the controversial emblem. To those people we say, please hold your applause until the end.
Symbols are powerful representations of shared meanings. Not only is the Confederate Flag a symbol, but calls for its removal from the public domain are also largely symbolic. These acts, while welcomed, do not address the myriad of ways racism is manifested throughout American society, including throughout the various social institutions with which we come into contact everyday.
What the celebration surrounding the proposed removal of the historic relic reveals is a lack of understanding of what racism looks like in the post-civil rights era for many whites and even for some Blacks. White racism looks like a 21-year old waving a Confederate Flag. It looks like the massacre of nine respectable Black people in a house of worship.
It is far easier, and for some politically expedient, to rally behind efforts to memorialize seasoned Black public servants than it is to rally behind urban youth thrown to the ground, or worse. The assault on young Black bodies often end, not with bipartisan and interracial coalitions and press conferences, but rather with discussions about “what’s wrong with Black youths” and how Black youths should respond when encountering a person in a position of authority—even when that person is in the wrong.
The phrase “Black Lives Matter” refers not only to the dignity and humanity of Blacks relative to whites and other groups, but it also refers to the dignity and humanity of Blacks of every age, gender, ethnicity and social class position.
We need a sincere and genuine commitment to social justice issues around matters of race that goes deeper than just scratching the surface of our torrid racial past. We need to understand that if and when the flag comes down in Charleston that children of color will continue to live in communities, sit in schools, and be driven down roads named for slaveholders, confederate generals and segregationists.
We must come to the realization that people of color will still begin the journey that is life well behind the starting line because of historical and contemporary practices and policies, which privilege members of the dominant group and simultaneously disadvantage racial and ethnic minority groups.
People of color will continue to feed the pipeline from schools-to-prisons and live in segregated communities, not because of an inability to pay, but because of the desire to maintain social distance between various racial minority groups and whites.
As is often the case, it takes a terrible tragedy to prompt people in positions of authority to act. Clearly, there is more work to do. So please hold your applause until the end and do not be frightened by the long periods of silence.
Lori Latrice Martin, PhD is an Associate Professor of Sociology and African and African American Studies at Louisiana State University, author of Big Box Schools and co-editor of The Assault on Communities of Color.