Sally Kohn: It's about time that South Carolina leaders agreed on the removal of the Confederate flag from the state Capitol grounds
But the Charleston shooting is about more than a flag; it points to systematic biases that turn into overt racism, Kohn says
It’s a relief that South Carolina leaders, including Republicans such as Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Lindsey Graham, are finally calling for the removal of the Confederate flag that still flies on the Capitol grounds.
That flag should have been taken down 150 years ago at the end of the Civil War. And political leaders should have stood firmly against the Confederate flag – and all it stands for – before the Charleston shooting.
While the Confederate flag is a powerful and problematic symbol, one that should completely be dismantled, taking down the flag is just the first step. What we must do is take down racism.
As Yoni Appelbaum writes in The Atlantic, when South Carolina seceded in 1860, the declaration it issued didn’t say much about states’ rights or tariffs or other grievances. The Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina made clear the state’s primary motivation for rebellion was the “increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery.”
To put it more simply, South Carolina and the rest of the South only seceded to preserve the violent domination and enslavement of black people, and the Confederate flag only exists because of that secession. To call the flag “heritage” is to gloss over the ugly reality of history.
It’s easy to take down a flag. But dismantling the shameful system of racial bias is far more difficult.
Today, black Americans fare worse than white Americans by many measures.
Researcher Kathleen Geier notes, “Blacks are nearly three times as likely to be poor as whites and more than twice as likely to be unemployed. Compared to whites with the same qualifications, blacks remain less likely to be hired and more likely to earn lower wages, to be charged higher prices for consumer goods, to be excluded from housing in white neighborhoods and to be denied mortgages or steered into the subprime mortgage market.”
And as we’ve witnessed time after time, black Americans are disproportionately likely to be ensnared by – and killed by – the criminal “justice” system. There is evidence of structural bias in almost every facet of our society. To blame any of these statistics on individual black people’s behavior, or the “culture” of the black community, only reinforces racism by blaming oppressed communities for their own suffering.
If you think there’s resistance to taking down a racist flag, try talking about structural racism and the idea that whether we want to or not, those of us who are white implicitly benefit in a society that is biased against people of color. When I talk about these issues, people have accused me of being divisive and hateful and making the world “a miserable place.”
No, the world is a miserable place when unarmed black people are routinely killed by police and white politicians and the media question whether “black culture” is to blame. But when nine black Americans are slaughtered by a white racist, the same politicians and media think that interrogating “white culture” is “race baiting.”
Last year, in the wake of the events in Ferguson, Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly argued that white privilege isn’t real. O’Reilly said he does “not believe in white privilege,” and added, “However, there is no question that African-Americans have a much harder time succeeding in our society than whites do.”
As New York Times columnist and CNN contributor Charles Blow wrote at the time, “It is difficult to believe that those three sentences came in that order from the same mouth. Why would it be harder for blacks to succeed? Could interpersonal and, more important, systemic bias play a role?”
Racial equality won’t come just from white people condemning the actions of overt racists like Dylann Roof or calling for the removal of the Confederate flag. Nothing will change if we turn a blind eye to the more subtle and pervasive systems of bias that perpetuate such inequality.
Whether it’s our educational system, our banking policies, our hiring practices, our social behaviors, our health care system or our criminal justice system, racism and bias permeate through our structures. But we can’t take these structures down until we see them.
Take down the damn flag. And then take down the systems of bias that helped create it.