Rallying Round the Flag—by Peter Eisenstadt

And now South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and the state’s two US Senators, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott have come out for taking down the Confederate flag from the statehouse. Haley, I thought, gave a fine statement. Yes, she was pushed into doing this, and just last year when she ran for re-election she dismissed the question of removing the flag, but she is a good politician, and good politicians know, like any rat, when to desert a sinking ship. (She has her eyes on higher office, no doubt.) The business leaders and other powerful interests in the state have decided, at last, that the confederate flag is bad for business. I don’t know what took them so long (or rather, I do) but I am glad they have at last allowed themselves to be guided by their moral values and not their timidity and complacency. Anyone can be a hero if she is pushed hard enough.

The removal of the flag is far from a done deal. The Heritage Act of 2000, which moved the flag from the statehouse dome to the grounds, mandated a two-thirds vote to change the law. It is not clear if Haley has the votes to accomplish this. A number of politicians in this area of the state are nixing the idea or have yet to announce their views. A poll in a local newspaper was running 2 to 1 in favor of keeping the flag. South Carolina Republicans are a contentious bunch, and these cats are reluctant to be herded. On the other hand, it is not clear that a bill in South Carolina can legally mandate a super-majority as a requirement for its amendment rather than the usual majority. (Someone joked they should have required three-fifths rather than two-thirds.) Anyway, one suspects Haley wouldn’t have made this announcement unless she had already twisted a number of arms.

Some have already argued that, even if the flag comes down, it’s a superficial victory at best, that it is only a symbol, that there is so much more needed to change things for the life of black South Carolinians, and that it will be one giant photo-op for the state’s Republican establishment. I wouldn’t be so cynical. Fifty years ago with the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, Jim Crow came to an end. But almost nothing else in the white South did. Certainly all the symbols of the racist past remained, and whites in the South, for the most part, were convinced, as Obama said the other day, that not calling people niggers in public was proof of their good will. But of course it was not enough. The significance of the flag episode is that it is recognition how far we still we have to go in ridding our country of racism, its symbols, its causes, and its consequences. And it is one way, a small way, but a significant way, to not merely debate the issue, but to move forward.

Obama said some interesting things in his interview about race the other day. I am glad, for one, he used the word “nigger” rather than that euphemism, the “n-word.” I think the latter gives the word far too much power. When there is a context in which it is appropriate to say it, as in Obama’s case, say it. I was less happy when he said racism was part of America’s DNA. First I am increasingly annoyed by the metaphorical misuse of DNA, just bio-babble. But more importantly, when you say something is part of a nation’s DNA, you are in effect saying that it can’t be changed, that it is fixed and permanent. Racism is not a part of America’s DNA. Racism shaped American history, and shapes America today. It is our heritage. But it is not necessarily our destiny. Unless people believe that transformational change is possible, there will be no transformational change. Finally getting the Confederate flag off of our public monuments and spaces is a recognition that America must, at last, break any lingering ties to our racist past, if we are to make a better future.