ARTICLE

After the Flag Comes Down

There’s growing momentum to take down Confederate flags, but our work to denounce systemic racism cannot stop at symbolic markers.

Along with many other people in this country, I was absolutely devastated last week by the nine murders at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The shooting, at the hands of an admitted white supremacist, was yet another reminder that people of color, especially black people like me, are not safe in the United States. Whether walking, driving, playing at the pool or praying inside a church, we face the possibility that we may be assaulted or killed because of our skin color. These are facts that I have come to realize, and with every incident, I hope more and more Americans come to realize them too.

The shooter, Dylann Roof, was arrested even as the Confederate flag that he embraced flew high in South Carolina and across the country. What has followed swiftly in the wake of the Charleston massacre is a demand to take down the Confederate flag. A petition to take down the flag at South Carolina’s capitol quickly generated over half a million signatures. There were nationwide calls from politicians, celebrities and everyday people to get the flag removed not just in South Carolina but everywhere.

The response to these demands were immediate: South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley gave a press conference during which she stated that it was time for the flag to come down. In other Southern states, politicians are now admitting that this symbol is offensive. Notably, Confederate flags were removed from the grounds of the Alabama State Capitol yesterday, upon the request of Governor Robert Bentley.

The Confederate flag has no business flying anywhere in the United States; I agree with this claim. But when I hear conservative Republicans arguing to take down the flag, major businesses like Walmart and Amazon announcing that they will stop selling Confederate flag merchandise and see a grassroots petition garnering hundreds of thousands of signatures, I want to know where is this response when other unarmed black people are killed? Where is this response to mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline? Where is this response to systemic racism at large?

Yes, many flags have been taken down. But United States of America, please don't pat your back for too long and think the removal of a symbol marks the removal of racism altogether. The real work still needs to be done. Taking down the Confederate flag doesn't take away the implicit bias people feel when they see a group of black people walking down the street, nor does it negate the fact that black students (beginning in preschool) are more likely to be suspended or disciplined at higher rates than their white peers. These are a couple of the real issues at hand with much more immediate consequences than the Confederate flag—ones I would love to see a collective American movement get behind. 

Just imagine if Americans could come together to denounce systemic racism in the same way we’ve gotten behind the campaign to remove the Confederate flag. The results may just be revolutionary. 

Williams is the new media associate for Teaching Tolerance.

Editor's note: For more resources on similar topics, visit our Web package Teaching About Ferguson: Race and Racism in the United States.