Last week, South Carolina took a monumental step in removing the Confederate flag from its State Capitol, where it had shamefully flown for 54 years. But here, in our nation’s capital, Republicans tried to go in a different direction.
House Republicans had to pull a vote on a spending bill because some of their members opposed a measure that would ban Confederate flags from national cemeteries. And when Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi presented an opportunity for Republicans to do the right thing and immediately remove the Confederate battle flag from Capitol grounds, they punted.
South Carolina, the birthplace of the Confederacy, had the courage to do what House Republicans did not — remove a symbol of incomprehensible hate, a hate that manifested itself in the massacre of nine worshipers who had gathered together in prayer at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
Since that unfortunate day one month ago, we, as a nation, have been forced to look inward at who we are and who we want to be.
Out of the immense grief of that dark day in Charleston came resounding calls throughout our nation to remove the Confederate flag and other symbols of racism and racial supremacy.
For many, removal of these symbols is a logical step in the trajectory of our nation — a necessary action on the path toward a more perfect union. For others, calls to remove these symbols of hate are seen as attacks on Southern identity, heritage and culture.
But arguing that the Confederate flag is a symbol of Southern pride celebrates a single, homogenous culture.
It means listening to only some voices at the expense of others and ignoring the African-American experience throughout our nation’s history, from the dark period of slavery to the civil rights movement to the present day.
The Confederate flag has always stood for racial supremacy and bigotry, and if we are to fully realize our nation’s promise of justice and full equality, we cannot embrace such symbols.
We have heard complaints that removing the Confederate flag and other symbols of hatred is a distraction from the larger problems facing our nation, such as rampant gun violence.
I agree that significantly more work must be done to address racism and persistent inequality in our nation. I also agree that we need meaningful gun reform, from expanding background checks to reducing unchecked online ammunition purchases, and that we need to create jobs, reduce wealth disparities, and expand educational opportunities.
But symbols matter. Symbols legitimize public opinion and, in doing so, entrench attitudes and beliefs. At the same time, they create meaning, shape actions, and connect us with one another. And just as symbols can connect us, they can tear us apart.
So we’re not just talking about symbols in an abstract sense. We’re talking about the consequences of symbols — the mindsets, behaviors and actions that symbols drive.
The Confederate flag has been used to terrorize African Americans. And, as we saw with the Charleston massacre, to this day it continues to embolden those who wish to commit racist violence.
It is impossible to comprehend how the lives of the “Charleston Nine” were cut short in such a horrific and senseless act.
But the shooting has caused us to confront our history and talk honestly about it. We’ve seen that with the widespread calls to remove the Confederate flag and to discontinue its sale. We’ve seen it with the lowering of the flag in South Carolina.
The path toward true equality demands these conversations, but we need to keep in mind a harsh truth: The symbol is gone, but the sentiment remains.
It exists in persistent institutional racism. Our criminal justice system is a perfect example.
According to the National Urban League, “Mandatory minimums and disparities in crack-cocaine sentencing incarcerated countless African Americans for an inhumane length of time and have made the U.S. the world leader in prison population. This has created a modern day caste system in America.”
Additionally, minorities continue to suffer from housing discrimination that limits their ability to pursue educational and economic opportunities. As far back as 2000, low-income black communities were over twice as likely to receive subprime loans as were low-income white communities.
These remain some of the biggest challenges of our time — challenges that clearly won’t be resolved just by removing the Confederate flag. But the removal of this flag is a necessary step because symbols, and the history they carry, shape our thinking and, by extension, our actions.
The path toward true equality for all, the path toward a more perfect nation, is never a smooth or a straight one, but it’s a path we must always blaze.