What does it mean for a member of a racial minority to be, or become a full American, to have genuine American citizenship? Does it mean joining white America, or does it mean joining America? Thereby hangs much of the history of African Americans since the early 20th century. Those using the term integration, positively or negatively, have sometimes used it in both ways. Or to put in a somewhat different way, was the point of integration to join existing white institutions or to transform them? Defenders of integration argued for the latter, while black nationalists, since the 1960, have generally argued that integration was largely joining white institutions and thereby sacrificing a coherent black identity.
However blacks understood saw integration and racial equality, whites, all too often, saw racial equality as simply joining white America. There were reasons for this; in the North, integration usually meant blacks attending white schools or blacks moving to white neighborhoods. The reverse was very uncommon. The same was true in the South, in addition to which, there was the heritage of the white South, the long legacy of segregation and white supremacy. Under the civil rights laws, blacks were free to enter white restaurants, hotels, and schools, but other than the mere fact of black entrance and acceptance, for most whites there would not be any fundamental changes. As President Obama said the other day, it meant a few words would not be said in public, and some public behaviors would change. But other than that, not so much. Most whites felt that by accommodating blacks they had more than done their share, thank you very much, end of conversation.
But this felt far short of true integration, of mutually creating institutions that would truly be capacious enough for persons of all races, and would address the many lingering social ills that white supremacy wrought. And there, until this week, is where we were. White Americans in the South were generally angry and defensive when asked to abandon the symbols of white dominance, the myriad monuments, statues, and street names dedicated to slaveholders , Confederates, and post-Reconstruction racists, and they were especially touchy when it came to abandoning the most evocative and powerful symbol of white supremacy, the Confederate battle flag. And though in states like South Carolina, uneasy and ultimately unworkable compromises were wrought, the underlying issue was not addressed; there was no place in a truly inclusive America for a governmental imprimatur for symbols of white dominance, and that if Americans were truly committed to a racially inclusive democracy, these symbols had to go.
And the Charleston massacre brought these issues to a head, and there is talk of removing the flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds, and similar moves in other states. Private companies like Walmart, Amazon, and Ebay are banning the sale of the flag, extending the already significant informal sanctions against the flag. In the part of the country where I live, upcountry South Carolina, the most conservative part of one of the most conservative states in the country, the flag is rarely seen. (Though almost all of the legislators who want to keep the flag flying hail from these parts, sad to say.)
Getting rid of the Confederate flag is, ultimately, symbolic. If Gov. Nikki Haley wanted to do more to bring about the true integration of whites and racial minorities in her state, she could, for starters, eliminate the voter ID law, the gerrymandering of the state’s congressional districts, accept the federal Medicais money, before recognizing the rights of unions and addressing the grave structural inequalities in the state’s economic and social structure. But getting rid of the potent symbol of the Confederate flag would be a great first step. The time is long past when this country can be divided against itself; half committed to a racially inclusive nation, half opposed. A nation, so divided, as a wise man once said, cannot stand. And Abraham Lincoln would no doubt be pleased that what started in Charleston, some 155 years ago, might end there as well.