Reb Herring: (n.)

A racist symbol that draws attention away from the systemic inequality and hatred it represents.


Let’s start here: South Carolina should take the Confederate flag down.

*NB: I will be using South Carolina as a stand-in for any government, institution, or individual who flies or wears that particular symbol.*

The First Amendment purist in me maintains they shouldn’t be made to take it down. I don’t think anyone has the right to do that. But the people (legislature, governor… whomever it is that makes the official decision) of South Carolina should absolutely choose to respect the wishes of so many Americans (and, ya know, the tenets of basic human decency), and remove the Confederate flag from their state capital – and ideally, everywhere.

But here’s the thing – even if it is taken down – it doesn’t actually change anything.

This issue has overwhelmed the media right now. It’s being discussed on every news channel – editorialized and analyzed and explored in countless magazines and blogs. Facebook is replete with endless threads debating and pontificating on either side of the issue. It’s the one hashtag to rule them all.

But all I can wonder is what the actual outcome of its removal would be.

The lowering of the flag would be a kind of victory, yes. For well over a century, it has been a symbol of hate and violence and treason, and to fly it today over a state capital is a symbol in and of itself. It is a tacit suggestion that the government of that place, and the people it represents, endorses those beliefs. It’s vulgar and hateful, and a daily reminder to some that they will never be truly welcome, and that the suffering their ancestors endured, and the inequities they themselves must face are alive and well right there… in the seat of that state’s political leadership.

Lowering that flag would be a victory of symbolism, for certain.

But we’ve had symbolic victories so many times in our history. Marches and elections and even legislation. And while those symbols have represented a beautiful and moral intention… they’ve honestly done little to render a meaningful change in the fixed and unjust realities they opposed.

Poverty has worsened. Racism has woven itself into every single institution of power. Rates of incarceration, drug policy, education, home ownership… you know the list… there’s no need for me to continue it. The effects of institutionalized racism have become a kind of offhand reality in this country. And those realities and the horrifying effects they have on our neighbors remain unchanged no matter how many symbols we upturn.

The men and women protesting right now understand far better than I ever will the toil that remains to turn a symbolic victory into something real.

Doubtless, they have known and lived an inequity I’ve only read about.

And really, I’m not writing this to them. I’m writing this to people like me. Those with the privilege to talk about these symbols, just to hear ourselves talk. People who rant and speechify and tweet tweet tweet about our thoughts and feelings, in the absence of real, substantive action.

We should take the flag down. Yes. And we should feel pride in its absence. But let’s not for a moment think that its removal erases the very real and persistent inequities it represented. Or that we are in any way released from our responsibility to act, to vote, to work, to toil, and to fight for the betterment and equality of our neighbors.


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