Share this article

print logo

The Confederate flag is down, but racism remains alive

South Carolina has taken down the Confederate battle flag.

The act was long overdue. It followed the heartless murder of nine black church parishioners by a self-avowed lover of the Confederacy.

In a powerful floor speech, South Carolina Republican State Rep. Jenny Anderson Horne, a descendant of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, called the flag a “symbol of hate.” By contrast, when the U.S. Congress later tried to ban the flag on federal properties, Rep. Steve Palazzo, R-Miss., accused Congress of trying to “wipe away 150 years of Southern history.”

People defend the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of “southern pride” and “states rights.” In starting an armed insurrection, the “states right” Southern states wished to defend was slavery.

The flag is portrayed as a symbol of Southern patriotism. In fact it was a battle flag of treason.

Flags of states, nations and rebel armies are intended to be compelling political symbols that represent a set of beliefs. We believe that the American flag symbolizes freedom. We would never say it only represents our national pride. To explain away the Confederate battle flag only as a symbol of regional pride is to ignore the meaning it was intended to communicate.

But racism is not a Southern problem, it is an American problem and it is alive and well.

I have been told by some that the solution is focusing on the families, like the dysfunctional one that raised the South Carolina church shooter. No doubt mental illness played a role in the tragedy this young man created.

But to deny the role of the ideology of racism which led to his targeting an historic black church is to stick one’s head in the sand.

Northern whites have always collaborated with Southern whites’ retelling of history. It is because of our shared history of racism.

The narrative that has been created treats racism as part of our past – which it is, but it is also part of our present.

From Charleston to Ferguson, Mo., to Staten Island, the recent tragic killings of African-American people sadly fit into a pattern that predates the founding of our nation and is rooted in our failure to uproot the deeply seated racism that continues to plague our nation.

Consider the inequities in our public schools, which leave millions of children of color in underfunded schools stripping students of a full, rich education. The Campaign for Fiscal Equity court ruling led to a commitment to provide $7 billion to New York’s underfunded public schools. But since 2008 the state, sadly, has failed to comply – leaving Buffalo schools owed $96.2 million from the state.

Like many urban schools nationwide, Buffalo schools have huge racial disparities in student suspensions, needlessly depriving students of learning time. The Buffalo Public Schools have set an example for the state by reducing suspensions by 36 percent since 2010. However, a recent report, which my organization co-authored with the Advancement Project, showed that black students in Buffalo are still 6.5 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers and Latino students 3.6 times more likely.

As a nation we have never fully come to terms with how central racism has been to the American body politic. I am not only talking about individual bigotry, I mean systemic inequality based upon race.

Each of us can make a difference in our daily lives. We can speak against the epidemic of police killings of unarmed black men. We can demand full and fair funding for schools and support an end to racial disparities in suspensions. We can support the demand for a $15 minimum wage that will dramatically raise the standard of living of many families of color.

If we do not take responsibility for reversing the social, economic and political consequences of American racism in our generation, it will continue to haunt our children and our children’s children.

Billy Easton is executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education.