The Confederate Flag: We’re Cleaning the Floor When We Should Be Stopping the Bleeding

I haven’t watched or read the news much lately.  It’s too much for me.  The first time Joe watched me sit in front of CNN and cry was in 2007 watching the coverage of the Virginia Tech Shooting.  The following year, when The Secret Life of Bees came out in theaters, and May knelt at her wailing wall crying over problems that weren’t her own, Joe leaned over to me and whispered, “That’s so you!”  And it is.  My life is pretty great, but I cannot ignore the truth that so many people’s lives are not.  I feel their pain, and it gets exhausting to write about it. Especially with the dawn of smart phones and social media, I carry the harsh reality of what other people are facing in my pocket quite literally. There is, sadly, too much to be said.   But when people ask me what I think about issues, it shows me that someone wants to hear my thoughts, so I will deliver, scattered as they may be since I’m out of practice.

In a particularly powerful scene in a book I’m reading, an elderly woman is startled to see a young man she cares about very much standing in her kitchen bleeding profusely.  Unsure of where to start in terms of helping him, she freezes.  Once she finally moves to action, it is to frantically grab a dish towel and begin mopping up the puddle of blood on her linoleum floor.  At this point, as a reader, I’m thinking What?! A loved one is traumatized in your kitchen, and your first movement toward rectifying the situation is to clean the floor?!  And then I thought Yes! It’s like the Confederate Flag!  Stay with me here.  You see, in the book Ms. Ora is an elderly white lady during the 1970’s, and Marcus is a black teenager, the son of her hired help.  While Ms. Ora herself doesn’t participate in the racist attitudes of her small southern town, they are undoubtedly there, and they are spiraling out of control.  She is startled to see Marcus in her kitchen at all, much less wounded.  There is so much to think about:  How did he get hurt?  Who hurt him?  How bad is it?  What should she do?  What does his being here mean for her?  Where does she even begin in terms of helping him?  Overwhelmed, Ms. Ora goes instantly to what she can control — she cleans the floor, an inept reaction that startles even her.  She snaps out of it and moves to tending to Marcus’s wounds.  It’s a small paragraph in an important chapter, but it explains exactly what we’re doing in terms of the racial tensions in our country. 

When nine staff members were killed during a Bible Study at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in South Carolina, there was, and still is, much to talk about.  Racism, church safety, gun laws, access to mental healthcare were buzzwords swirling around, even for someone trying to avoid the news.  But then something happened that I’m fairly sure no one expected.  American society turned their attention to the display and availability of the Confederate Flag.  According to Twitter, it was pulled from the shelves at major marketplaces like Wal-Mart and Amazon within days of shooter Dylann Roof’s Facebook profile and hate-filled manifesto being thrust into the public eye.  I was simultaneously amused and confused.  Amused because I’m sure Roof never anticipated the removal of the flag being a result of his actions, and it surely wasn’t something that would please him.  Confused because it seems like a misguided step toward healing racism in our country.  Are you seeing the connection to Ms. Ora yet?  We’re almost there. 

It would be a mild understatement to say that things have been racially tense in our country of late.  But it would be a seriously wrong statement to say that these problems are new ones.  You can post as many memes of cuddling interracial babies which proclaim “No one is BORN racist!” as you want, but the truth is that especially in the American South, racism is an idea that runs so deeply in the way people think and act that many don’t even realize it’s there.  Tale as old as time:  People do not like what is different from them.  It scares them.  It chips away at what they so want themselves to be, which is superior or privileged. It is, simply put, fear.  And just because some people fail to acknowledge this fear in themselves and in others does not mean it isn’t there.  It is.  Ask any black person.  It is very real for them. 

Healing a problem of this magnitude is no simple task.  It took, quite literally, hundreds of years to create it, and many still cannot admit it exists.  You don’t have to shoot up a church to be racist, but an event that serious certainly draws attention to the issue of racism in our country.  So what do we do when we’re traumatized and startled like we were after the church shooting and don’t know how to stop the bleeding?  We rush to what can be done easily; we clean the floor.  (See, I told you we’d get here.)  When we are forced to see what horrible things can come from a racist mind, we scramble to action, any action, and we clean the floor.  We as a country have no idea how to approach a problem so ingrained in many American hearts, so we frantically fix what we can control — in this case, the sale and display of the Confederate Flag.  Is the removal a good thing?  Sure, I guess.  It’s certainly not bad.  It is a type of progress.  It shows a shift in attitude that must be present for real change to occur.  Just like Ms. Ora needed to clean her floor eventually, the flag’s removal would’ve had to happen at some point in order to establish real peace.  But perhaps it shouldn’t be our first step.  Perhaps we should stop the bleeding first.  Like Ms. Ora, we aren’t sure what to do next, so we have found a distraction, loosely related to the problem, on which to focus our attention.  The same voice in my head that wanted Ms. Ora to pay attention to Marcus before the floor is begging America to look at racism before the flag.  If she stops the bleeding, the floor won’t be a mess.  If we work on racism, no one will want the flag.  Go to the source of the bleeding!

How do we stop the bleeding then?  How do we begin to heal a wound this old and overwhelming?  Because the removal of the Confederate Flag is a band-aid, a temporary fix.  We need more.  So what?  The answer is simple, and the answer is hard.  I think we start by loving other people.  Community.  Conversation.  Friendship.  Acknowledgment.  Education. Training our actions and our thoughts to be mindful of those around us.  Speaking out against injustice when we see it.  Talking about it with our children.   Being the change we want to see in the world. 

I don’t claim to have all the answers.  If social activists for decades haven’t solved this, then I certainly won’t either.  Very real, very big things must happen to fix us.  But while your friends on Facebook are arguing about the relevance of a symbol, please be mindful of the real issue at hand — hatred in the human heart and the love that must overcome it. 

*Just to clear up any misconceptions….Because sometimes I read over my writing later and worry about how people could miss my point.  I am not in any way trying to minimize the Confederate Flag as a symbol of our country’s most shameful past or the importance of people beginning to see it for what it is.  Nor am I putting myself on a pedestal in terms of being above prejudice.  I am merely trying to point out that owning or displaying the flag is a RESULT of racism, not a CAUSE of it.  If we cannot first fix the part of our culture that wants the flag, examine and expose the reason people cling to it and make excuses for it, then erasing the flag will not be enough.*

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