The Flip Side

30 06 2015

Following the massacre of the Charleston Nine, the buzz is all about the Confederate flag. Everybody is weighing in on the issue, and most of the talk is that the flag is a symbol of hatred and inequality that must not be sanctioned by the state. For the record, that’s what I believe. Yet there is another side, one that I have been searching for so that I can get inside of the mind of those who believe it would be wrong to take down the flag. We’ve heard the line, “The flag is a symbol of our heritage” given in favor of keeping the flag on our statehouse grounds. That, however, is only part of the reason why the Confederate flag is seen so often around the South.
First, it’s cool. At least that is the view of many youth. Rebellion is what teenagers do best, and what better sign than the rebel flag. To many Southerners, the Confederate flag is our version of the skull and crossbones. Skulls, that very symbol of death, now adorn every bit of a child’s wardrobe: shirts, shoes, lunchboxes, and backpacks. And as children progress from elementary school to middle and high school, the skull becomes too childish. They start looking for another symbol of their new spirit of independence and defiance. Some white kids latch onto a more dangerous symbol, that of the battle flag of the Confederacy. I’ve seen this happen. Several years ago, I had a sweet kid in my fifth grade class. She was smart, tender-hearted. A good kid. She still is. But just this past week I have seen her posing in front of an image of the Confederate flag. If I were to ask her, I’m certain she would tell me that the flag doesn’t symbolize hatred to her. She has black friends. She is not a racist. So why does she stand behind (or in front of) the Confederate flag? I believe it is because she thinks it is cool to rebel against what society is telling her.
And that leads into another key aspect of the Southern psyche: we are a very independent people. As a whole, we don’t like people, especially the Federal government, telling us what to do. We are well aware that our state is often the butt of many jokes around our nation. The Confederate flag, to many, is a way to say, “In your face, United States.” It is the sign of Southern independence, albeit a short-lived independence. So when a Southerner cries, “Heritage!” what they are really saying is what many a child has yelled at the older sibling: “You’re not the boss of me.” Not a very mature stance, for sure, but there you have it. And although we should rail against stereotypes, the common image of the Confederate flag supporter is that of a poorly educated, low-income white person. And here I am struggling not to use a stereotypical epithet.
There is another, more mature reason some people have for not taking down the Confederate flag, one held by very conservative, Libertarian types. The line of thinking goes thusly: When will it stop? How far is the federal government going to step into the rights of the state? We have already heard rumblings that Confederate memorials and statues need to come down. How far will this go? Will the rights of the individual and/or state be trampled on due to popular opinion?

The flag issue is heating up. There is a definite backlash in progress. Friday evening, I saw a gathering of vehicles in an empty parking lot. As I watched, people started unfurling Confederate flags, pulling one up a flag pole erected on the back of a pick-up truck while others were draped over the sides of the vehicles. Last night, I watched a video of a young black woman who very deliberately climbed the flagpole on the state grounds and lowered the Confederate flag, submitting gracefully to the police who handcuffed her and led her away. Emotions are strong. Whatever our opinions, however, we need to try to see the issue from the other viewpoint and discuss them peacefully and rationally. Only then will we be able to come to a consensus as to what is right, what is good, what will lead to healing of our people, our state, our nation. I believe we are on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement, Part II. How we work through it will determine the course of our lives for many years to come.

sit in

What South Carolina Isn’t

22 06 2015

The news is full of this latest hate crime. “Emanuel AME shooting may be most deadly hate crime in South Carolina history, historian says” –Charleston’s Courier and Post. “Jeb Bush, Romney call for removal of Dixie flag from S.C. Capitol” –USA Today. “Charleston Church Shooting: KKK, White Supremacists Operate in South Carolina”—NBC News. Here’s the real news: South Carolina isn’t the Confederate flag. South Carolina isn’t the KKK. And South Carolina isn’t the Evil* that invaded the sanctity of a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last Wednesday evening.

The Confederate flag has no place on the grounds of the State House in Columbia. This has not always been my stance. I used to feel that it was a part of South Carolina’s heritage and the state should not kowtow to the demands of a few who took offense to it. However, a symbol is what we make it. It has become obvious to me that this flag has taken on the meaning of hatred, of divisiveness, of racism and inequality. Blacks see the flag as a sign of oppression. White extremists salute it and pledge their continued support of its racist ideals. Matthew 5:30 in the King James version of the Bible says, “And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee.” So take it down. Put it in the State Museum with a label that accurately states the principles that led our state and others to fly it. The state of South Carolina should not be sanctioning, by allowing it a place of honor on the grounds of the State House, a battle flag from the Confederacy. That shameful part of our heritage is done. It is over.

But South Carolina is not the Confederate flag. Our real state flag is one of the most recognizable flags in America: its crescent harkens back to the Revolutionary War, as does the palmetto tree. The cabbage palmetto, for those who may not know the beloved story, allowed Fort Moultrie to stand as the British cannonballs were absorbed in its spongy stalks. (On a side note, I find it slightly amusing that South Carolina’s state tree is actually a grass.) South Carolinians not only fly this flag with pride, they emblazon it on tee-shirts, flip flops, car decals, jewelry, key chains, and countless other accessories. If you sit still for long enough, you will find yourself decorated with images from our flag. These icons, infinitely more than the Confederate flag, stand for the love of our state and all that is good and brave in our state. That is the heritage that South Carolinians look for and find in our state flag. The Confederate flag is not the flag of our state.

Since this massacre, the news media has been reporting on the number of hate groups in South Carolina: 19, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, including the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and other white supremacist groups. The implication, of course, is that South Carolina, once a hotbed of racism, remains so. I just got back from a Sunday evening trip to Walmart. This being the Bible belt, if I have to grocery shop on the weekend, I choose to do so on Sunday evening. The stores are less crowded, what with a large proportion of the population being at Sunday evening church services. Many look at Walmart in disgust, laughing at the photos posted on websites that ridicule how some people dress or look as they shop. I view Walmart as a microcosm of society, the one place where people from all walks of life can be found. And tonight, in Aiken, South Carolina, it was no different. A black man and a white woman, with a mixed race child in their buggy, checked out the cartons of eggs. An Hispanic woman and a black man perused the frozen foods. Folks greeted each other and chatted over the cereal display. Usually the colors or cultures don’t even register with me. It’s not that I’m color blind. I usually just get tunnel vision as I speed down the aisles, checking off the items on my list. Tonight I was looking, searching for signs of racial animosity, trying to find evidence that old racial tensions still governed our lives here in the deep South. Try as I might, all I saw were people shopping. Peacefully. Getting along. Not just co-existing, but lives intertwining.

Which is not to say that there is not racism in South Carolina. Or that “apartheid,” that ugly word that brings back images of angry South Africans clashing against white government policies, does not still exist here. It does. Not de jure, but de facto, a more insidious form of segregation in that it is harder to combat. Perhaps apartheid is too harsh a word, but since the school districts are governed by the state, and the state allows this segregation to continue, I believe the word fits. Here in my city, my hometown, there is a school with a population that is mostly black. More importantly, its population is mostly low income. Not surprisingly, it has historically been a low-achieving school. Not at all because of race, but because of socio-economic status. Let me repeat: it is not the race, but the fact that these students are coming from poverty that is important here. Although the school district has pooled resources to bring “best practices” and model teachers to this school, they haven’t done the one thing that just might even the playing field: rezone so that the population is a mix of students from different socio-economic levels. It has been my experience, borne of 25 years in the classroom, that when classes have a good mix of students, the stronger students raise the bar, both for the instructional level as well as the learning of the lower achievers. Rezoning is not a politic thing to do. Were my children still in public school and they were rezoned to this school, my dander would be up. Rezoning is not easy, but it is the right thing to do for our schools and our children. We must ensure that there is “liberty and justice for all” both in the classroom and on the streets.

The demon that entered Mother Emanuel on June 17 has failed. He sought to incite hatred and bring about segregation. But the people of this church, of this historic city, of this good state aren’t letting this happen. Victim’s families have reached out to this murderer, forgiving him and showing him the way of love. And blacks and whites and Hispanics and people all over the state have joined hands in solidarity, protesting the violence and the evil behind it, doing so peacefully but with purpose. Yes, there is hatred flying over South Carolina just as it does in every state in this United States. But that hatred and evil does not define our state. South Carolina is not the Confederate flag or the KKK. Rather, the love and caring for our fellow humans, whatever the race, whatever the culture: this is the true color of South Carolina. The war is over. Let the fight continue.

*I refuse to give this person any further notoriety by mentioning his name. We all know what his name is. We do not need to give him any more press that might only perpetrate future crimes fueled by hatred and evil.
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