Suppose African-Americans marked their heritage with flags depicting Nat Turner’s rebellion of 1831, in which slaves massacred about 60 whites before the uprising was crushed? The flag wouldn’t be celebrating the murder of whites, of course, but would simply commemorate a factual milestone in black history!
Suppose Mexican-Americans waved a flag depicting the Battle of the Alamo? The point would not be to celebrate the slaughter of Texans, but to express pride in Mexican heritage!
Suppose Canadian-Americans displayed a flag showing the burning of the White House in the War of 1812? Nothing against the Yanks, mind you – just a point of Canadian historical pride!
Suppose American women waved flags of Lorena Bobbitt, who reacted to domestic abuse in 1993 by severing her husband’s penis and throwing it into a field? The aim wouldn’t be to approve of sexual mutilation, of course – but Bobbitt’s subsequent acquittal was a landmark in the recognition of domestic violence!
Never miss a local story.
Well, you get the point. That’s how the Confederate battle flag looked to many of us. And at least Nat Turner was fighting for his own freedom, while the Confederate battle flag was the banner of those who fought freedom, defended slavery, clubbed civil rights workers – and, most recently, murdered black churchgoers. And it’s exhilarating to see the same distaste expressed in the Southern mainstream.
“The Confederate battle flag was the emblem of Jim Crow defiance to the civil rights movement, of the Dixiecrat opposition to integration, and of the domestic terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan,” noted Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention. “White Christians ought to think about what that flag says to our African-American brothers and sisters.”
The last year has brought a far-reaching conversation about race in America. But much of that conversation seemed polarizing more than clarifying, leaving each side more entrenched than ever – so it’s thrilling to see a wave of action now.
South Carolina may finally remove the flag from the State House grounds, Alabama has removed four Confederate flags from its state Capitol grounds, and Mississippi may also take a Confederate battle cross off the state flag. Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland and North Carolina seem poised to keep the Confederate flag off license plates. A bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, is expected to be evicted from the Tennessee State House. Wal-Mart, Sears, Amazon, e-Bay and other retailers will no longer sell Confederate merchandise.
So we’re finally seeing not just conversation but movement.
But the movement is in some ways chimerical. It’s about a symbol – and now the progress on the symbol needs to be matched by progress on racial inequality in daily life.
America’s greatest shame in 2015 is not a piece of cloth. It’s that a black boy has a life expectancy five years shorter than a white boy. It’s that the net worth of the average black household in 2011 was $6,314, compared with $110,500 for the average white household, according to census data.
It’s that almost two-thirds of black children grow up in low-income families. It’s that more than one-third of inner-city black kids suffer lead poisoning (and thus often lifelong brain impairment), mostly from old lead paint in substandard housing.
More consequential than that flag is our flawed system of school finance that perpetuates inequity. Black students in the United States are much less likely than whites to attend schools offering advanced science and math courses.
The one public system in which the U.S. goes out of its way to provide services to African-Americans is prison. Partly because of our disastrous experiment in mass incarceration, black men in their 20s without a high school diploma are more likely to be incarcerated than employed, according to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
So I’m all for celebrating the drawing down of the Confederate battle flag, but now let’s pivot from symbolic moves to substantial ones.
That means, for example, early childhood programs, which offer the most cost-effective interventions to create a more even starting line. These include home visitation, high-quality preschool and literacy programs.
A Stanford University randomized trial examined a simple, inexpensive program called Ready4K!, which simply sent three text messages a week to parents to encourage them to read to their preschoolers - and it was astonishingly successful. Parents read more to children, who then experienced learning gains - and this was particularly true of black and Hispanic children. And because this was text messaging, the cost was less than $1 a family for the whole school year.
So, sure, good riddance to Confederate flags across the country! And then let’s swivel to address the larger national disgrace: In 2015, so many children still don’t have an equal shot at life because of the color of their skin.
Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.