As the news broke of Dylann Roof emptying his pistol out on churchgoers at the Mother Emanuel AME church during a midweek service, we were taken back in time. Like a basketball team playing in jerseys from an earlier era, white supremacy has reverted to throwback tactics, killing black folk in church basements. Except now, bombs are now replaced with bullets, maybe because it’s easier to give your child a .45 for his birthday instead of a bombmaking set. 2015 feels like 1963.
Which brings me to my first point: This shit ain’t new.
When the news broke, the police chief discussed the events as “unfathomable.” I’ve become increasingly frustrated with the way people and the media think through expressions of white supremacy. If you think this event was unfathomable, you’re either delusional as hell, or lying to yourself. In other words, I call bullshit. Anyone “surprised” by what happened can miss me with all of that, because this country has made its bread and butter off of killing black folk, demonizing us, rendering us dangerous, blaming “rappers” for the “moral decline of America,” or labeling righteously angry men and women “thugs.” A dead black body is often more valuable than a live one, and if you don’t believe me, ask Darren Wilson: he’s now a millionaire after killing Mike Brown.
Nah, there is nothing new about a white man invading a black space and raising hell. But because we’re so shallow and cheap in the way we talk and think through racial concerns in this country, we reduce events like Charleston to isolated incidents, label the perpetrator a racist, and try to distance ourselves as quickly as possible from the situation. We systematically forget our collective history, continually writing the horrors of white supremacy out of the history books, and creating a space for a population increasingly shallow in its approach to race and racial relations.
Which brings me to my second point: Our cheap conversations about race lead us to talk about shallow things, like the confederate flag.
I don’t know what world people are living in, but the proper response to Charleston is not some shallow (or even brilliant and in-depth) conversation about a flag we already knew was a symbol of white supremacy and racism. I don’t need a history lesson about a piece of cloth; I have no time for celebrations about South Carolina taking down the flag. I’m tired of symbolic victories; I’m exhausted by political rhetoric masquerading as a concern for justice. I don’t give a shit about companies selling confederate paraphernalia. And yet, black folk have settled for the symbolic victory; we’ve gotten political breadcrumbs, gained a reluctant “okay” from a government who clearly has been explicit about the fact that it has never cared about our wellbeing.
American history proves this. Emancipation was an empty promise; after about ten years of so-called “freedom,” sharecropping—the new form of slavery—showed up, keeping black folk in the south in their place. And in the north, black folk were herded into the worst neighborhoods with the most dilapidated building structures. If Abraham Lincoln was a liberator, the freedom he offered was cheap; it may have cost him and the country a lot, but blacks were not much better off than they were before. They were merely recognized in a system that was never created for them in the first place.
And, if the successes and failures of the civil rights movement have taught us anything, it has taught us that symbolic victories aren’t really that valuable. Martin Luther King, Jr., the patron saint of civil rights justice, once stated that it makes little difference to integrate a counter if black folk can’t buy what the company is selling. Having the right to vote is of little worth if politicians can redraw and isolate and diminish the black vote. These victories, as important as they might have been at the time, have proven to do little for black people, save the few people who moved up into the middle and upper-middle classes. Symbolic victories are merely moral victories dressed in political drag; and we all know what Jay-Z said about moral victories: they’re for minor league coaches. And, unless you’re one of those people who are actually involved in the lives of our youth, it might be time we stop wasting our time with these cheap-ass moralistic and symbolic victories, and start demanding more.
But the real problem with “flagged conversations” (see what I did there?) is that they are a deflection; they obscure the ugly nature of white supremacy, allow it to operate in disguise. When a politician calls for taking down a flag or when a company decides to stop selling products with this symbol on it, they turn attention away from the system that animated the making of the flag in the first place. These conversations and actions allow for politicians to continue the maintenance of systemic forms of white supremacy. Politicians can take down flags while cutting education budgets; they can take down flags while not saying anything about a white supremacist judge demanding forgiveness for Dylann Roof (it’s good they removed this dude, but the fact that he was in there in the first place…).
But, while these men and women verbally forgave Roof, I’m more in line with Rick Ross: God forgives, I don’t. I won’t forgive a system that tries to do political sleight of hand, trying to appease me by taking down a flag while deflecting the other horrors it perpetuates. I won’t forgive a system that systematically kills and imprisons black men and women through a militarized police force. I won’t forgive a system that co-opts a black president into waiting into the last few months of his term to apparently speak his true mind. I won’t forgive a system that lets a man off for killing a kid in his own neighborhood who was coming from the corner store. No amount of flag destruction and removal can inspire me to forgive a system whose very structure doesn’t even offer the possibility of reparations for some of its most subjugated peoples. Black folk are systemically poorer, less educated, and less exposed to opportunities in this farce of a country; but every time a symbolic victory occurs—every time a black man is elected president, or a flag is taken down, or a lunch counter is integrated, or a group of cops are put on trial for an obvious murder—we clap our hands, rehearse the lie of American progress, and lie to ourselves about the state of race relations in this country. It may be better than it was, but it certainly isn’t good in any way.
So miss me with all of this flag conversation. I’ll start caring about flags and symbols when the concrete condition of my people gets better. I’ll start caring about where a piece of cloth is hung near government buildings when my people actively participate in the creation—not maintenance—of an equal government. I’ll start engaging in symbolic conversations when my people control the symbols and are the primary beneficiaries of the symbols.
Until then, fuck a confederate flag. I got more important shit to do.
Biko Mandela X
Also published on Medium.