Defeating Racism is About More Than a Flag

Every now and then, a subject deserves a good rant, but someone else is better suited to give it voice. Today, Rethink the Rant is happy to host just such a voice on an important subject in a guest post from Todd Rainey.

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Rev. Clementa Pickney, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Daniel Simmons, and Depayne Middleton Doctor were murdered last week in an act of white supremacist terrorism. Their deaths, the latest in an ongoing series of tragedies, are a painful reminder of the threat that is white supremacist ideology.

Illustration by Sarah Green

Illustration by Sarah Green

After issuing calls for forgiveness and reconciliation, participants in the 24 hour news cycle have directed considerable energy to the confederate battle flag. The flag is certainly a racist symbol (this is not up for debate), and it has no business being flown – especially by a government.

Although the removal of the confederate battle flag isn’t the only political struggle in the wake of the attack, it seems to be one of the more salient political agendas offered in the wake of the Charleston shooting.  The flag adds insult to injury where victims of racism are concerned, but our energies against the insult must surely give equal measure to the injury that provides its power.


The confederate battle flag needs to go. It has needed to go. The flag needed to go as much two months ago as it must go today.  Whether the flag removal campaign is the spearhead of larger movements such as #BlackLivesMatter or a stumbling block remains to be seen. I fear that without due diligence, it can easily become the latter. Political symbols serve as shorthand for larger issues. But overemphasis on the abstract symbols of racism can come at the expense of more concrete gains.  Symbols have real power, but they are given that power by some material structure. In the case of the confederate battle flag, its power is derived from not only the klansman with his gun, but the economic development plan which isolates minority neighborhoods. Addressing the symbol without attacking the power would change only the flag under which our country’s leaders will marginalize the victims of white supremacy.

The murderer in Charleston rallied behind the confederate battle flag. Yet it wasn’t the flag that turned him into a terrorist. It was media coverage of race, a toxic brew of racist organizations, and his own perverse notion of white entitlement. Surely those deserve as much attention as the piece of shit flag they band behind.

Hating the confederate battle flag is part of America’s time-honored tradition of hating racists more than it loves the victims of racial supremacist policies. It’s far easier to hate a racist than it is to love the black community from which much of white America lives separately. It’s ironic, of course; the reason racism is bad is because of those it victimizes. When forced to confront a monster of our own making, the image of the racist in american political discourse is as a stand-in for all our racial sins. By demanding change of those we label the worst sort of racists, we export our complacency in the complex web of racism, then burn the effigy as an act of atonement.

These politics are especially difficult to manage when considering the timing of the removals. Tragic as they are, these murders cannot be considered an exception to the norm in a country founded on racial violence. The confederate flag has flown over countless more deaths in the name of white supremacy. The timing of the anti-flag movement seems to suggest that only the right sort of tragedy can precipitate such a movement. And by all means, if this is the tragedy that causes it to come down, it’s a win we should take. But we should also question why this particular event has been anointed worthy of the symbolic change when so many more were made to suffer its insult, all while we remained silent.

In a world with no confederate flag, we’d still have officers that took the shooter to a Burger King after his arrest. We’d still have a judge who said that the real victims were the family members of the shooter. We’d still have a wealth gap and de-facto segregation. The racial history of this country would be as much of a stain, its segregation as appalling, and its racial double-standards as inexcusable.11141350_10153422968176880_3279347084887726016_n

We’d have one less insulting symbol. If that’s enough to satisfy your sensibilities about justice, you’ve missed the point and set the bar too low. Still, it’s a start, and I hope that its removal becomes a symbol for a deeper, more earnest conversation in the media about the anti-racist movement.

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 16a3f18Todd Rainey is an educator and forensics coach living in East Texas. A former competitive collegiate debater with a degree in economics, Todd also has a passion for history and politics. When he isn’t building a curriculum, coaching his students in competitive public speaking, chasing after his precocious daughter, or playing Go, he reads and writes about social movements past and present.


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