When twenty children and six adults were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, the country was outraged. President Obama spoke at the memorial and many tears were shed. Calls for gun control were immediate; the need for stricter rules seemed obvious. Finally, many of us naively thought, some action would be taken. None was. After some verbal missteps by its leader, the NRA moved forward with confidence and legislators in Washington and elsewhere caved. Gaining better control of this heavily armed country is very hard. The NRA and more importantly the gun manufacturers, using the Second Amendment and friendly or intimidated legislators as their weapons of choice, have spent whatever is necessary to keep the cash register ringing. Guns don’t kill, people do, they tell us. They dish up this cruel non sequitur, and we as a nation let them get away with. Hunters should have a right. I know, I know — but would the world end if they had to find an alternative sport?
Well we’ve had yet another mass shooting, this time in an African American church in South Carolina and this time tied to racism. As it happens, despite years of criticism, a Confederate flag flies over their state house. They are not the only southern state to hold on to that symbol of what is often called America’s “original sin”. Here in North Carolina, the controversial image can be found on vanity license plates and Georgia incorporates it into their state flag. Supporters of the South’s war flag have always claimed that, rather from having any racial connotations, the image merely celebrates the state or region’s proud history. For them, keeping it in place has always been a highly emotional issue.
With the discovery that the Charleston shooter posed with the flag and other white supremacy symbols, voices began to gather demanding — at long last — the removal of the flag or its image from public places. Within days the chorus grew and the governor of South Carolina, along with its two US Senators (one is running for president) called for its removal from the capital. Legislators immediately agreed to place this issue on their agenda, a process that might take months with no guarantee of success. North Carolina’s governor who is standing for re-election next year asked that the flag image be removed from state issued license plate. Major retailers including giants Walmart and Amazon announced they would no longer sell Confederate flags. Wow.
It is far too early to tell if all this support for taking down flags, discontinuing the license plates and taking them off the market will continue. I’m not holding my breath. Of course, unlike guns there is no NCFA (National Confederate Flag Association), no big revenues at stake. Guns may “not kill”, but they make billions. As one flag maker told an interviewer, we make all kinds of flags — a diversified product line — and it’s probably not a reach to assume that discontinuing one of many would not constitute hardship. This practical dollar denominated difference between guns and flags tells you a lot. Removing flags — even if some still fight tooth and nail — is relatively easy. If and when the flags come down and the license plates are “cleaned”, many Americans are likely to pat themselves on the back and say “job well done”.
Not so fast. I may argue with the notion that guns don’t kill, but would be the first to agree that flags are not, in and of themselves, lethal. The alleged shooter in Charleston may have been “inspired” by a Confederate flag but he used a gun to kill those peacefully assembled for Bible study. In his recent, perhaps precedent-setting garage podcast interview with Marc Maron, President Obama talked about race. It took place only days after the shootings. He noted that a great deal of progress has been made and that anyone who doubts it should ask a Black man who lived through the 1950’s or 60’s. Nevertheless, the president said that our country lives with a legacy of racism, “in our DNA”. He then went on, “We’re not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened 200 or 300 years prior.” Needless to say, his use of the “N word” (standing for the never saying the impolite word in public) shocked many, but its directnes was refreshing.
I’m all for removing those flags and symbols, images that both glorify and incite. But focusing on the flags is a distraction. It takes our attention away from gun control in general and from our continued and serious problem with racism. This president knows everything about that. Multiple and “heartfelt” disclaimers not withstanding, much of the opposition to him from day one has been all about race. In fact, that racism is always piously denied makes it all the worse. Bill Clinton was also subjected to irrational vitriol from his first to last days in office. It’s no coincidence that he many in the civil rights community lovingly referred to him as our “first Black president”. There is no getting around it, if you happened to be born as an African American in this country you are more likely to attend crowded and below part schools, be stopped by the police, overpopulate our jails and most certainly you don’t have the same opportunities as your White counterparts.
Focus on the flag also averts our attention from, what was reported this week on the first/home page of the NY Times. “Since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims: 48 have been killed by extremists who are not Muslim, including the recent mass killing in Charleston, S.C., compared with 26 by self-proclaimed jihadists, according to a count by New America, a Washington research center.” Domestic terrorism, much of it race hatred based, is a huge threat, one recognized by law enforcement. The Times story went on to say, “A survey to be published this week asked 382 police and sheriff’s departments nationwide to rank the three biggest threats from violent extremism in their jurisdiction. About 74 percent listed antigovernment violence, while 39 percent listed “Al Qaeda-inspired” violence….”
We may take the flags down, but that won’t erase the hatred that caused the killing in South Carolina or the many acts of violence that police and other authorities have prevented in the last years. What brought Timothy McVeigh to bomb a federal office building in the 1990s — killing 168 people — still drives extreme right wingers and supremacists across the country. What happened in Charleston is part of a much larger story. Until 9/11, Oklahoma City was the largest and most costly terrorist attack in America. Taking down flags, like not using the “N-word” in polite society, might make us feel better, but they won’t solve the problem. Sure they are a low cost solutions, but as the adage says, “you get only what you pay for”. Cheap doesn’t get you much — surely, not nearly enough.