In the aftermath of the shootings in Charleston, I strongly supported the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol grounds. But my concern has always been that too many people would assume that a symbolic gesture was a sufficient response to this horrific tragedy. Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP and leader of the Moral Mondays Movement, makes it very clear that it is not sufficient.
Taking down the flag is a good thing. But when we look at the voting and policy records of most of the political leaders who helped to lower it, we should be careful with equating its removal as a history-altering event. Systemic racism is alive and well; they show no intention yet of dealing with the fundamental inequalities racism still causes in our society.
But the power of racism has a strange endurance. This history of refusing to bring down the flag…shows that Black deaths alone are not enough to bring change. According to what some politicians and media commentators have implied, knowingly or unknowingly: Only if the murders are caused by someone who had posed for photos of himself surrounded by racist paraphernalia, and only if the deaths are accompanied by acceptable Black love and forgiveness, then it might matter. Then it passes the racist paternalistic standard and tone test. Clearly it has been said without these deaths there never would have been a debate regarding bringing the flag down. And herein lies a painful reality: Only extreme Black deaths will precede mediocre symbolic steps against past and present racism…
Much has been said about the families’ forgiveness, but in the theological and nonviolent tradition of the Movement I come from, such forgiveness should not be misinterpreted as a dismissal of the greater evil. In fact, the type of Christian forgiveness of Dylann Roof is actually a subversive forgiveness that says the nation cannot place the entirety of the blame on the individual perpetrator alone. The system and culture that produced the climate and perpetrator must also be indicted.
Let us be clear about what’s being said: nine Black deaths may get the flag lowered, but it will not get you one pen to sign Medicaid expansion throughout the South, which would save thousands of Black lives. Black deaths will not get full voting rights, which saves Black political power and produces policies that save black, brown and poor white lives. It will not get criminal justice reform, which liberates Black lives. Nor will it get you full funding for public education, a living wage, or economic empowerment that will lift the lives of black people, minorities, and the poor. It will not get gun reform. Black deaths only get you the lowering of a low-down flag that should have never been up. It will get you nine pens as memorabilia and a signing ceremony at the Capitol. It will get you one final insult in the promise that an undignified flag, a symbol of hate, will be lowered “with dignity and respect” as Governor Haley promised white people still committed to the Lost Cause. And you will get this only if Black people die, and the victims’ families and extended family in the human race behave in a manner declared acceptable and ‘Christian’ by people who have supported un-Christian, immoral public policy that continues to institutionalize economic, racial and political inequality.
We cannot allow this narrative to stand unchallenged. If we do, we are complicit in the furtherance of a chilling truth that Black lives don’t matter . . . only Black death matters.
The flag has been lowered and much of America has moved on from this story. But as we work towards Medicaid expansion, voting rights, criminal justice reform, funding for education, living wages and gun reform, we demonstrate that it is not only those nine Black deaths that matter – it is Black lives that matter.