After a white racist killed nine blacks in a South Carolina church on June 17, many Americans asked what could have been done to prevent such a tragedy. Tougher gun control? Greater surveillance of hate groups? Better anti-discrimination laws? No, the first major demand for reform was a call by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, to no longer fly the Confederate flag over the state capitol.
As a symbol of past slavery to many and a symbol of Southern heritage to others, the Confederate flag has long needed to come down from government buildings in the South. Flags must unify, not divide. And this one carries enough racist overtones that it might have even given license to the gunman who shot the African-Americans during worship at Charleston’s most historic black church.
America’s struggle to improve race relations since the Civil War has long focused on new laws and court rulings. These legal measures have removed much of the overt racism in public life. Now the struggle has shifted to changing attitudes rather than simply changing behavior. This means symbols like the Confederate flag are primary battlegrounds for taking the measure of lingering racism in people’s thinking – and ending it.
President Obama summarized this shift in approach during an interview on Monday with Marc Maron, host of the “WTF” podcast. “It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours, and that opportunities have opened up, and that attitudes have changed,” the president said. “What is also true is the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives, you know, that casts a long shadow and that’s still part of our [mental] DNA that’s passed on. We’re not cured of it.”
He then told of his personal struggle growing up in trying to reconcile being seen as a black in society while being raised by a white mother. “I don’t have to be one way to be both an African-American and also someone who affirms the white side of my family,” he said. “I don’t have to push back from the love and values that my mom instilled in me.” He described his mother’s core values as kindness, honesty, hard work, and caring about others.
Preventing racist attacks like the one in Charleston will require a similar struggle in thinking among more Americans. Many black leaders have called for a “national dialogue” on race. In a small way, the debate over flying the Confederate flag has helped stir that dialogue.
But ultimately the choice by an individual to see beyond skin color and discern a person’s values takes moral courage. Conversations on race can help. Laws help. Altering symbols may help. But the choice is done one person at a time. Until no one feels a need to kill those of another race.