Let’s be careful not to get so jubilant about South Carolina taking down the Confederate flag that we forget that its removal does not dismantle a single racist structure in this country. Of course it needed to come down. It should never have been there in the first place. And those who claim it as a symbol of their heritage need to be careful as well about what they intend to portray by that acclamation.
Symbols are powerful and they are important. It stands to reason that some symbols might be meaningful to one person and not so for another, but those of us who have paid even the least bit of attention to what the Confederate flag was about find it difficult to see it as anything more than representing an era in this country when there was a great push to maintain a way of life that was indefensible and was bound to die. Of course it did not die soon enough and unfortunately we are still paying the price of its horrible and dehumanizing affect.
The Confederacy was about not wanting to be a part of the United States of America primarily because slavery was not going to be allowed and it was about not wanting to have to adhere to any system that was not going to support the idea of white supremacy. In 1961 when South Carolina put up that flag it was a statement against the advancement of civil and human rights for African Americans, the state was quite clear about what the flag was intended to demonstrate.
So many are happy that it is down. But in many ways it seems a bit hollow to make too much of this action. It is too easy for us to get overly excited about symbolic gestures that ultimately bear little fruit when it comes to real change. Americans love symbols. If we can put enough energy into a symbol it makes it seem as if something concrete has been done because so much energy has been used to hold up the symbol.
Of course I understand that symbolic gestures are important, but they must be kept in perspective. This is critical because it is extremely easy to be so blinded by the light of a symbol that nothing concrete is ever accomplished. A good example of this is seen each year with the celebration of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s Day. In many instances this event has become a symbolic way to be an activist for a day and then to get back to business as usual when the parades and breakfasts have ended.
While King certainly needs to be acknowledged and the Confederate flag needs to be in a museum, there is a much bigger picture to consider. It is the picture showing how the work of liberation needs to be done. Ceremonial events have a place in our lives but they cannot be allowed to replace the need for doing the consistent and persistent work of resisting oppression and all of the isms that it fosters.
The work, of making sure that all people are free and the shackles that have been constructed for those who happen to be different and especially for those who are black and brown, is not finished yet.
In the weeks to come more voices for liberation need to be heard by all who believe in freedom. Everyone needs to be unwilling to allow there to be any difference in the way that a “white mother’s son is treated and a black mother’s son.” The removal of the flag from the South Carolina Capitol grounds can become an action that moves our nation a few steps closer to true freedom for everyone, or it can become simply another reason to be hyped for a minute while traveling back to business as usual. Let’s be careful.
This column by Catherine Meeks, Ph.D., appears twice monthly. Meeks is also a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.