Legions of people clapped, cheered and cried as South Carolina lowered the Confederate battle flag. But the euphoria of a moment that was more than a decade in the making quickly began to shift to a hard question to answer: What exactly had been accomplished for race relations in the United States? Was it more symbolic than substantive?
A flag is gone. But discrimination, poverty and inequality still exist around the country, with some wondering if the time and energy spent on the Confederate battle flag might have been better used tackling other racial issues facing Americans.
“It was easy to focus on the flag, as opposed to the issues that have divided blacks and whites historically,” said Carol Swain, a law and political science professor at Vanderbilt University.
But a symbolic victory is still a victory, others argued, with this one meaning more than most – that the feelings of a minority population perpetually outvoted and not always considered in the South had finally been acknowledged. The abrupt shift in political willingness to take down the flag came just weeks after nine black people – including a revered minister and legislator – were shot to death during Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston; photos of the white man charged with their slayings showed him displaying the Confederate flag and authorities have described the slayings as a hate crime.
In the years before, it was viewed as political suicide to push to remove the flag from the State House grounds. Former Govs. David Beasley of South Carolina and Roy Barnes of Georgia were voted out of office over the issue. Beasley had proposed relocating the flag from the State House to a monument. Barnes had introduced a new state flag to reduce the size of the Confederate battle symbol emblazoned on it.
Elsie Lee, a retired South Carolina state employee, thought about what her parents went through in the South as the Confederate flag, which has been adopted by segregationists and supremacists over the years, slowly came down from a flagpole in front of the state capitol.
“This is the most important thing happening in this country,” said Lee, who lived through the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. “You just see everybody coming together. … I wish that my parents were here to see this.”
The ceremony on Friday when the flag was removed brought out a jubilant, hundreds-deep multiracial crowd. Some chanted “USA” and “hey, hey, hey, goodbye” as gray-dressed South Carolina troopers lowered the flag in a six-minute ceremony. Jayme L. Bradford, 42, a journalism professor at Voorhees College in Denmark, watched it come down and said now that it’s gone, race relations may get better.
“This moment has been a long time coming,” she said. “It always haunts me. It always reminds me that racism is alive and well.”
Still, no one is naive enough to believe that taking down the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s capitol grounds will magically end racism or discrimination in South Carolina or the South, said Trent Brown, a Mississippi native and America Studies professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology. There are still discussions about policing and voting rights to be had, he said.
More blacks live in poverty than anyone else in the United States – 27.2 percent, compared with 9.6 percent of whites, 10.5 percent of Asians and 23.5 percent of Hispanics of all races, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More than 2.5 million African Americans were arrested in 2013 – second only to the 6.2 million whites arrested, according to the FBI. But there were more black men than white in state and federal prisons in 2013 – 526,000 compared with 454,100, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The South went through a major symbolism shift during the civil rights movement, when the signage of Jim Crow laws – like “Whites Only” and “Colored Only” signs on water fountains, restaurants and bathrooms – was forced down by the federal government. The backlash against Confederate imagery – a relic of the post-Reconstruction days when white Southerners regained control of state governments after the Civil War – doesn’t confer new rights to minorities like the removal of Jim Crow signs did, but it will make a difference in the long run, Brown said.
“It doesn’t change poverty in South Carolina. It doesn’t change access to certain kinds of power. It doesn’t change disabilities or discriminations that people labor under,” Brown said. “I think the flag change is not a sign that everything is now fine, that the work of reconciliation is done. I think it is an important measure but I don’t think people who celebrate the flag coming down will or should see it as the end of the conversation, rather as a step in the conversation.”
“When a black citizen of South Carolina approaches the Capitol today, the flag is gone. It was there yesterday,” he said. “It says something about participation, about access, about belonging in a community and I certainly wouldn’t sell that short.”
While the removal of the flag doesn’t immediately eradicate the issues faced by African-Americans and others, it does set the stage for reconciliation and to provide a path for confronting issues of inequality, experts and advocates said.
“There’s a clear sense of reconciliation to some extent,” said D’Andra Orey, a political science professor at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi, the only state left with the Confederate battle flag as part of its state flag. “You saw folks actually hugging folks of different races … White leaders, black citizens, those individuals were in harmony, if you will, so in many ways this is a form or a first step of racial reconciliation.”