Editor’s Note: Dorothy A. Brown is a professor of law at Emory University and author of “Critical Race Theory: Cases, Materials, and Problems.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
South Carolina lawmakers voted to remove Confederate flag from State House grounds
Dorothy Brown: Issue shows when blacks talk about race our concerns are dismissed
We need the Jenny Hornes of the world to step up before tragedy strikes again, she writes
South Carolina state Rep. Jenny Horne is an overnight national hero because of her speech Wednesday night on the South Carolina House floor, where she argued for the “immediate and swift removal” of the Confederate flag. She called the flag a “symbol of hate” and she said that she had “heard enough about heritage.” Her voice cracked while speaking and she had to pause in order to maintain her composure.
Her remarks were powerful and emotional, and the emotion I recognized was anger. Horne was angry, and it was long overdue. She was angry because it was taking so long for her fellow legislators to do the right thing. She became as angry as most of the blacks in South Carolina have been about this issue for years.
Black anger, however, wasn’t sufficient to bring the flag down. In order for the flag to come down we needed white anger. And several hours after Horne’s speech, the final vote was taken by the South Carolina legislature to remove the Confederate flag.
Some of the reaction to last month’s tragedy in Charleston, where nine people were killed in a church, showed that the Confederate flag held a different meaning for blacks than it did for many whites. And blacks have been left to suffer the tragic consequences of complacency over a symbol of racial oppression that for too long has inspired hatred.
So why didn’t more whites take the concerns of their black fellow citizens more seriously?
After all, blacks in South Carolina have been complaining for years that the flag needed to come down. But they were ignored. A Winthrop poll done for The State newspaper, taken prior to the massacre, showed that 61% of South Carolina residents wanted to keep flying the flag, while only 33% wanted it to come down. The results were flipped when talking about black South Carolinians: 61% thought it should come down, and only 27% thought it should keep flying.
Then the massacre took place, and whites and blacks were equally outraged. We saw images of large white participation in the numerous protests in South Carolina, and white elected officials calling for the flag’s removal. Whites were now listening.
Before the South Carolina House voted in the early hours of Thursday morning, big business already had. Several companies announced that they were no longer going to sell Confederate flag memorabilia. To be sure, there are some who still hold the flag in high esteem – reflected by Confederate flag sales going through the roof.
That South Carolina moved in the right direction is certainly welcome progress, but we need progress that doesn’t happen only after tragedy is inflicted upon black people.
While some have called for a national conversation on race, I argue that we need a certain kind of conversation – specifically one that is targeted toward whites. The Confederate flag issue shows when blacks talk about race, our concerns are dismissed. It is the power of white outrage that will make the difference in this country moving forward on racial issues. We need the Jenny Hornes of the world to step up – and before tragedy strikes. That is the type of leadership called for when dealing with race and the 21st century.