Has the backlash begun? Is there a connection between the flag and recent church burnings?

The speed with which Southern political and economic elites have rushed to abandon the confederate flying on or near public buildings has shocked many of us who are familiar with the ways those same elites have pandered to white fear and racism over the decades. As welcome as the removal of the flag is, it is only another step on the long road to rooting out racism throughout the US. And I think that one reason it is so popular right now is that it’s a way for Northerners to once again feel their smug superiority over the South.  I’m only somewhat surprised that legislatures and city councils in northern states haven’t passed resolutions demanding its removal in the South.

At the same time, we can expect a powerful backlash, and not just from the conservative media machine (although with today’s ruling on the ACA, their attention and outrage may change its focus). But that’s not where the real backlash is taking place. I suspect that in diners, bars, and on talk radio throughout rural America, white Americans are voicing their anger and outrage as confederate flags come down. No doubt, some of that outrage will be acted out.

Is it just coincidence that a church fire in Charlotte, NC this week was labeled arson, and that a church fire in Macon, GA is suspected arson, all other causes having been ruled out?

South Carolina and America

I lived in South Carolina for ten years, moving there just as the debate over the Confederate flag was reaching fever pitch. Although I don’t know Charleston well, the massacre at Emanuel AME Church hit home to me in unexpected ways. From social media, I learned that friends and colleagues had studied with Rev. Pinckney at Lutheran Southern Theological Seminary. I also read about the bomb scare at Allen AME Church in Greenville on Thursday. Greenville was the city where I worked for ten years.

I’ve also been reading a great deal about the continuing presence of the confederate flag on the grounds of South Carolina’s Capitol and the renewed effort to remove it. Over my years in the South, I developed a visceral fear of it–avoiding people and places where it was displayed. But the flag is only the most visible symbol of a deeper problem. As John Stewart mentioned in the monologue I linked to in a previous post, in the South, African-Americans are forced to drive on streets named for Confederate Generals. I drove on one such street everyday–Wade Hampton Boulevard in Greenville. It’s named after the Confederate General and first white governor of South Carolina after reconstruction. Indeed, Hampton helped to orchestrate the white takeover of the state through his involvement with the paramilitary group the Redshirts. There is also, by the way, Wade Hampton High School. The familiarity and ubiquity of the name helped to obscure the reality of who he was and what he’d done.

I remember standing in line at the polls on Election Day in 2008, less than a mile from that school. The electorate there was probably 75%or 80% white, mostly working class. We came dressed as we were, for work, or for errands, many in shorts and T-shirts. The whites, most of them, seemed apprehensive. The blacks who came brought their whole families. There were grandparents with their grandchildren, wanting them to witness history. There was a young man, 18 or 19 years old, casting his first vote. He wore a suit and tie. Just as one could sense the apprehension among any of the whites, the  hope of the African-Americans was palpable. They saw, the older ones the first time in many years, for the younger, for the first time ever, the possibility of a different future, a different nation, a different state.

One of the difficult things for northerners to understand is the complicated way racism plays out in the South. I don’t fully understand it, can’t hope to but I do know that there’s the possibility today for a real reckoning with the legacy and present reality of racism in South Carolina. But if that reckoning only takes place in the context of a debate over the confederate flag, it will fail. It will fail to address the racism that is at the heart of the state and the region. It will fail to address 450 years of violent subjugation of African-Americans of which the Charleston Massacre is only the most recent incident.

If there’s a a national focus on what’s wrong with South Carolina, we will escape the necessary reckoning with our national sin of racism. For racism isn’t a regional problem. It’s a national one. There may be subtle differences between South and North but racism pervades our nation. We in the North have been willing to say too often that it’s a problem for the South or that the work of undoing it is done–whether with victory in the Civil War, or Reconstruction, or the Civil Rights Movement. Unfortunately, racism is too pervasive, too insidious, to be undone by a single act or movement.

From my friend, the Rev. Michael Sullivan: We are all South Carolina

But to think that South Carolina has the monopoly on racism and the institutionalized, unacknowledged, systemic degradation of humanity is a part of our American problem.

Jack Hitt (a native of Charleston), on The New Yorker blog, offers some additional historical background.

From Tiffany Stanley (Religion and Politics), who grew up in South Carolina:

History pervades Charleston, but publicly it often offers a selective memory. The city and the state have been slow to reckon with their legacies. Just off the coast, the first shots of the Civil War rang out. By some estimates, nearly half of all Africans who were brought to America during the slave trade entered through the ports of Charleston and its surrounding areas. The legacy of racism, of Jim Crow, and of slavery’s brutality mark each cobblestone step and grand home that still stand. And yet, visitors are too often given a sanitized image of the Old South—genteel accents, hoop skirts, and sweetgrass baskets.

Of course, the target of that sanitized history is not just Charlestonians. It’s us. It’s all of those tourists from other parts of the country and the world who come to visit. I remember taking a tour of a a plantation house in Virginia some years ago, during which the tour guide kept referring to the “servants.” Slavery, the labor and people that made that house and lifestyle possible, had been completely erased from the story.


Naming the Horror–Racism

This unimaginable horror–perpetrated by someone so steeped in racism and racial hatred that he identified with South African apartheid as well as the Confederate States of America–perpetrated by someone who killed nine people after sitting with them and praying with them for an hour …

This horrific act has opened the wound that lays bare the racism at the heart and soul of America, a racism that expresses itself in ways large and small, from little daily indignities to state-sanctioned murder, that makes African-Americans fear for their lives whether they are running an errand to a convenience store, playing in a park, or praying in a church.

Words cannot express the horror, not only the horror of these acts that take place on a continual, relentless basis, but the horror that is at the heart of our nation, our society. But words are what we have, and we have people who can give expression to the horror at the heart of our nation, and the horror that it is to live as an African-American in this nation.

Among those words that have moved me in the past two days:

from Osagyefu Sekou:

They were killed because of their love. They welcomed a stranger and gave him a home as he plotted their demise. This is the best of black church — unconditional love. To love in the face of white supremacy is nothing less than a revolutionary act.

From Stacia l. Brown:

When we doubt, the friends who believe alongside us are often the light that keep us drawing nigh, lest we float away. We hold onto them when horror rushes in. We remind them, “Whatever you do, don’t let go of the Word.” In that moment, they are the Word in motion. And if we must die, for welcoming the troubled white supremacist 21-year-old whose boyish face looks as innocent as the brain behind it is wicked, if we must die for praying alongside him, if we must continue waging a war as unfathomable as it is unseen, there is no one better to be with in the end, than the people who kept us feeling closest to God when we felt farthest away.

From Broderick Greer:

There is nothing isolated about the violence exacted upon black people by law enforcement officers, vigilantes or terrorists. When police officers or extrajudicial neighborhood watchmen shoot dead descendants of this nation’s formerly enslaved population, they are recommitting themselves to the white American tradition of squashing out black life at every juncture possible. Over the past three years alone, I’ve learned that – in the social economy of white American supremacy – black people can’t walk to a convenience store, ask for assistance after a car accident, play with a toy gun or study the Bible without the looming reality of the violent white gaze.

and Jon Stewart:

“I honestly have nothing other than sadness that once again we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a gaping racial wound that will not heal yet we pretend doesn’t exist. I’m confident though that by acknowledging it — by staring into — we still won’t do jack shit.”