The savage act of racial terrorism at “Mother Emanuel,” the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in
Charleston, S.C., has been met with extraordinary expressions of faith in that
community. On Thursday, the victims’ relatives offered the terrorist their
forgiveness. On Sunday, Mother Emanuel’s doors opened for regular services. Hatred
and violence would not break the congregation’s spirit.
The murderer, Dylann Roof, said his intent was to trigger a race war. He spat on and
burned the American flag but waved the Confederate flag. Naturally, this has revived
the demand that the Confederate flag be taken down at the South Carolina state
capitol. The flag is a symbol. It stands for secession, sedition, slavery,
segregation and suppression of rights. That it flies at the state capitol expresses
the failure to address racial division. Germany does not fly a Nazi flag. South
Africa does not fly the flag of apartheid.
The flag is a symbol, but the agenda of the flag is very real. The flag agenda is to
preserve states’ rights over constitutional rights, racial divide over liberty and
justice for all. The flag agenda demands that states, not the federal government,
establish rules around voting. When the Supreme Court’s conservative gang of five
disemboweled the Voting Rights Act, a flood of measures designed to make voting
harder for minorities, the poor and the elderly ensued.
The flag agenda asserts states’ rights over national reform. The Supreme Court’s
conservative justices decided that states could refuse the expansion of Medicaid
that was part of health care reform. Only one state of the former confederacy then
accepted billions from the federal government that would expand health care for
their citizens, boost their economy and aid their hospitals.
The flag agenda sustains our systemic system of criminal injustice, where African
Americans are more likely to be stopped, more likely to be charged, more likely to
be detained, more likely to be jailed and — as we have seen again and again — more
likely to be at risk from the police that are supposed to protect them.
The flag agenda suppresses the right of workers to organize, the right to a living
wage, a safe workplace, a healthy environment. The flag agenda impoverishes poor
white workers by pitting them against poor black workers.
Today everyone is outraged at the killings, but there is not the same outrage that
African Americans have the highest rates of infant mortality, unemployment,
imprisonment, segregated housing and home foreclosures, segregated and underfunded
public schools, poverty, heart disease, liver disease, diabetes, mental health
issues, HIV/AIDS, denial of access to capital and more. The flag is a symbol, but
the flag agenda is this institutionalized state of terror.
There was an urgency to identify and arrest Roof before he hurt anyone else, but
there is not the same urgency to identify and arrest the current economic and
political conditions — the institutional racism and structural injustices — before
another generation is lost.
The flag should come down. It is deeply offensive that politicians who aspire to
lead this nation as president are too cowardly to call for its removal, hiding
behind states’ rights, the poisonous doctrine that is the heart of the flag agenda.
But putting the flag in a museum is not enough. Dylann Roof is 21 years old. He was
not alive when Rhodesia existed or South Africa was under apartheid. He was taught
his hatreds; he wasn’t born with them. His hatreds found deadly expression, but so
too do the institutionalized injustices that are not limited to South Carolina.
Racism requires a remedy. We need a White House conference on racial justice and
urban policy to offer a vision and a policy to deal with our structural injustice.
Remove the flag, of course. But we need the president and the Congress to challenge
the flag agenda.