That state officials from South Carolina to Alabama are acknowledging the inherent racism of the confederate flag is an important step in the wake of the Charleston massacre. As are the decisions of major corporations–Walmart, Amazon, Sears, eBay and so on–to ban sales of all confederate flag merchandise. These moves are especially powerful responses to racist terrorist Dylann Roof’s desire to spark a race war. As Roof’s use of the confederate flag makes clear, symbols are powerful, they have real and profound effects on the world; they can and do galvanize and strengthen dangerous ideologies.
Given how those on the right, in the immediate aftermath of the murders, did their best to suggest that the killings were not racially motivated, I wouldn’t have imagined that now, just a week later, we’d be talking about the removal of the confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina capitol, from license plates in Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia, from the flag of Mississippi, or from the confederate memorial on the state of Alabama’s Capitol grounds by order of Gov. Robert Bentley.
However it’s important to remember that these gestures, while significant, do not fix the underlying issue: deep-seated, institutional hatred and inequality. They do not erase the 784 hate groups that, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, operate in the United States. They do not address the problems of cops killing African Americans, or the inequity of criminal sentencing, or the prison industrial complex that incarcerates African Americans at nearly six times the rate it does whites.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that the flag is coming down and that its presence in South Carolina and elsewhere is being openly debated. I hope we move to removing statues of civil war leaders, to ending holidays in their honor, and to renaming streets, schools and parks that now bear their names. But even if all those things happen, there remains a great deal to be done. We must address the racial hatred and institutionalized racism has plagued this country for centuries.