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Symbolic Gestures Distracting from Black Community’s Key Issues

President Obama delivered a stirring eulogy at the College of Charleston last month, an inspirational speech and a thoughtful reminder on the state of race relations in America. The Rev. Clementa Pinckney, along with eight other church members, were gunned down June 17 by Dylann Storm Roof during Bible study at Emmanuel AME Church, a church with a long and deep rooted history of Black activism.

One result of this epic tragedy was that many people have begun to have intense discussions about the Confederate battle flag and other topics that have previously been rendered off limits among polite company in the public sphere. Conversation has primarily focused on the flag’s historical legacy and whether it is appropriate for the flag to hang above statehouses and to be sold as merchandise in department stores, on license plates and in other public spheres.

Momentum appears to be on the side of critics who argue that the flag is rooted in a negative legacy and is an affront to a large segment of the American population. A number of Southern states are at least moving in the direction of removing the flag from statehouse grounds and retiring it to museums. Wal-Mart has decided to prohibit selling Confederate merchandise in its stores and other businesses have followed suit.

To be sure, there are those supporters who have argued tooth and nail that the flag is merely a part of their heritage and nothing more. They need to read up on and develop a more critical comprehension of their American history. Without being too cynical, it is highly unlikely that a number of these previously staunch pro-Confederate propaganda politicians experienced a “road to Damascus” conversion, “turned a corner” and suddenly “saw the light.” Rather, the “vision” they saw was the pressure of corporate sponsors and the growing, ever-shifting mood of nationwide public opinion moving in the direction of opposition.  

While I am well aware of the power and importance of symbols, I also know that symbolic messages alone are not enough. Many times such nominal gestures wind up having insufficient funds when it’s time to cash them in. We cannot lose sight of the importance of substance. Over the past few weeks, various political pockets of the nation have been deeply immersed in passionate (for some opportunistic) debates about flags, what defines marriage and president Obama’s use of the word nigger.

Such discussions have triggered a wide range of reactions and perhaps some overreactions.

Zero tolerance of all things offensive might lead to advocating banning legendary films such as Birth of Nation (1916) and the 1939 Academy Award-winning film Gone With The Wind. As a historian, I can attest that this is a bad, quite frankly, foolhardy idea. The truth is that despite the retrograde racist messages that emanate from both films, both works can serves as valuable teaching lessons for younger and future generations by shedding light on a period of America that was very dark, sordid and far from progressive. The same goes for racial and gender stereotypes such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, statues named after racists and deconstructing other social issues that have dominated current social discourse.

For the record, I am in agreement with those who believe that the Confederate flag should not be displayed on statehouse grounds and removed from public for many of the aforementioned reasons. Put it in a museum where it belongs. Moreover, it would be commendable for Quaker Oats and Mars, Inc. to consider retiring the aunt and uncle labels from their products. Indeed, Jemima’s pancakes and Ben’s rice will do just fine, thank you.

Passionate discussions aside, it is vital that those of us who desire to see genuine and systematic change do not lose sight of the importance of achieving substantive victories without getting sidetracked by sophistic debates and symbolic gestures. We need to focus on chronically high unemployment in many communities of color; major health disparities between Blacks and Whites; disproportionately high incarceration rates among Black men; discrimination directed toward Black job applicants; violent and aggressive policing in Black and Latino/a communities; and gentrification and housing discrimination.

There are many pressing issues that require our immediate attention and will require a dedicated level of commitment. Making a substantial effort to combat such an unhealthy level of potentially destructive vices that plague our communities as opposed to unwittingly falling prey to embracingly fleeting issues should be our primary ongoing and permanent goal.

Dr. Elwood Watson is a professor of history, Africana studies and gender studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the co-author of Beginning a Career in Academia: A Guide for Graduate Students of Color (Routledge Press, 2014).

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