Removing the Symbol, Confronting Reality

Nine died at the hands of young supremacist Dylann Roof three weeks ago at a church symbolic of the black community in Charleston, and this massacre has made Americans realize the extent of the denial represented by the Confederate flag. In turn, the South Carolina Senate did what had to be done by agreeing to remove it from the State legislature on Monday. The symbol had become too embarrassing.

South Carolina senators voted unequivocally 37 votes to three to remove the “trouble-making” flag from the statehouse grounds in Columbia, where it had flown for 50 years. It is clearly never too late to do the right thing. The flag was hoisted at the beginning of the 1960s in explicit opposition to the African-American civil rights movement. If the House of Representatives accepts this decision, the flag will be moved to the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in the city center, which would be entirely appropriate. This action is all the more politically meaningful seeing as it was in Charleston that the Civil War began in April 1861.

The fact remains that we must be disconcerted by the fact there had to be a racist attack last June 17 for politicians up and down the country — in South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas — to recognize that the flag is a patent symbol of oppression and violent slavery. It’s a sign that a large number of Americans have lived in denial of this past — or have simply been unaware of its real meaning. Currently surveys are still showing that most Americans believe, or want to believe, that the main issue during the Civil War was defending states’ rights from Washington, not slavery.

The massacre, which Dylann Roof was formally accused of on Wednesday, unmasked the lie that the Confederate flag was nothing but a cultural reference to Southern state resistance. The massacre, carried out by an apparently deranged young man who shares hate group ideology, hasn’t, however, unmasked the very widespread misconception among Americans that racism and segregationist attitudes no longer exist systematically in the pluralist and multi-ethnic society that the United States has become.

It is in this context that, a week after the Charleston tragedy, the Wall Street Journal, among other right-leaning publications, stated in an editorial that the institutionalized racism which existed during the civil rights movement had now disappeared. Which is objectively false. Progress has certainly been made but the issue is still very real.

As it happens, in 2015 the life expectancy of a black American is five years less than a white American; the average wealth of a black household was 13 times less than that of a white family in 2013 according to a Pew Research Center study; nearly two thirds of black children grow up in a family with low income… And so on and so forth.

A lack of systematic discrimination? The workings of justice present an eloquent lie in a context in which, from Ferguson to Baltimore, cases of police violence against blacks have multiplied over the last year. A study published on Tuesday by the Women Donors Network, an organization based in San Francisco, concludes that nearly 80 percent of some 2,400 state and community prosecutors elected are white men, in a country in which they make up less than a third of the population. The study shows a flagrant lack of diversity among those responsible for deciding whether or not to charge individuals in criminal cases, and for negotiating their sentences. “What this shows us is that, in the context of a growing crisis that we all recognize in criminal justice in this country, we have a system where incredible power and discretion is concentrated in the hands of one demographic group,” said the study’s author.

The reality is embarrassing, too.

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