I grew up seeing the Confederate battle flag everywhere. It was featured on car bumpers, t-shirts, tattoos, and hats. It flew on poles in front yards near my high school. As part of the Georgia flag at the time, it even rested gently next to the American flag at school assemblies. Growing up here, it was a big part of living in the South.
Then, when I was a teenager, Georgia had a debate for several years about changing the flag. We asked ourselves if we should remove the battle flag because of its association with a time when the South rebelled and fought a war over states’ right to slavery. Some thought that we should in order to move on and give the people of Georgia a flag that represented everyone. Others said that the flag represented our heritage and should be preserved. The debate got so heated and ridiculous that there was even a South Park episode mocking the issue.
In the end, we did change it… to a flag that is almost identical to the first national flag of the Confederacy. It may not be as well-known as the battle flag, but it shows that Georgia was barely capable of doing something only slightly less racist. Today, when I see that a spokesperson for Georgia is touting our flag decision as proof that Georgia has moved on and is now a place for everyone, it irks me to say the least.
It’s also important to understand that changing our flag hasn’t changed much else. Georgia still continues to wrestle with racism. Our neighborhoods still tend to be divided by race, black children in our schools are punished more often and more severely, and t-shirts likening Obama to a monkey were sold here during the 2008 election. More personally, I remember my own high school principal once referring to black students as “undesirables.” Racism isn’t dead here. Like the state flag, it just got a little more subtle.
With the debate stirring over South Carolina’s Confederate battle flag flying near the Capitol, there are a few lessons the Palmetto State could learn from Georgia’s experience. Removing a flag or taking one down doesn’t wash away the problem. Dylann Roof would still have walked into that church even if the battle flag weren’t waving in Columbia. Changing symbols doesn’t solve systemic problems.
Let’s look at an entirely different example. Last week, the U.S. Treasury announced that a (yet to named) woman will be featured on the $10 bill. The decision has sparked outcry from some already. Yes, putting a woman on American paper money is a sign that we are recognizing there is more to our past than white men. But, does it solve the inequality issues that women continue to face in this country?
Changing symbols sends a positive message, but it should only serve as the introduction to a larger conversation. Symbols aren’t meant solve an issue, they’re meant to illustrate the bigger picture. By their very nature, they are shallow and superficial representations of something deeper.
Therefore, we need to look deeper into these issues. As has been said time and time again in the wake of Ferguson, we have to start addressing racism in the country, not just a flag that symbolizes it. So far we have only barely managed to scratch the surface. It’s a difficult and exhausting task, but dealing with an issue like this takes times. Racism is complex. It is systemic. And, it is literally killing us. So, if we think we can solve the issue by taking away a symbol, we will never solve of what really ails us.
Sure, take down the flag that flies near South Carolina’s capitol. Put a woman on the $10 bill. But don’t start patting yourself on the back before doing any real work.