The push to reconsider Confederate battle flags and other celebrations of the Lost Cause on public property is another heartening reflection of the progress we have made on race in America.
Those symbols, however, are one of the last pieces of low-hanging fruit left on our racial landscape – the last rotten apples in a Jim Crow orchard of obvious and pernicious institutional oppression cut down by the civil rights movement.
Our challenge now is especially daunting because we must face ever more subtle and ambiguous aspects of race. It involves not just policies but perceptions; not just laws but language; it hinges more on personal, rather than political, will and effort.
Some have wondered since President Obama’s election if America has become a post-racial society. Of course it hasn’t. The fact that African-Americans lag behind other groups in almost every important measure – including education, income, health outcomes and lifespan – proves that race matters. But those facts only get us so far. Instead of consensus, they spark often strident debates about the extent to which institutional racism or personal behavior shape those patterns, about the capacity of governments to create truly effective programs and then to fund them.
Those issues – the traditional racial terrain – may be cloudy. But it is crystal clear that African-Americans, by and large, view aspects of American society very differently than many of their fellow citizens. This phenomenon can probably be traced back to the arrival of the first enslaved people in 1619, one year before the Mayflower. It received wide attention in 1995, when the O.J. Simpson verdict revealed that many blacks viewed the same set of facts very differently than other Americans. In recent years, it has taken center stage as the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and others have highlighted broad – though hardly absolute – racial differences in perspective.
This divergence suggests that we live in a postmodern-racial era, where disagreements are less rooted in facts, than our interpretation of them. Instead of a single reality, we have multiple versions of it; instead of a single truth, there are many, competing interpretations based on our culture, education and life experiences.
Is white supremacy still a commanding feature of American life?
Do all whites enjoy privilege?
Is affirmative action tantamount to legal racism?
For many Americans these questions – which do not offer right or wrong answers – offer clear, right or wrong answers. There’s the rub.
Consider the Confederate battle flag. For some, it truly does declare racists feelings. For others, it is a symbol of southern pride and heritage that connects them to their families and the South’s distinctive past. For others still, it is a symbol of white supremacy. Those are just the most common interpretations, of which there are dozens more, many of which combine various strains of thought.
Until the last few weeks, those who cast the flag as a benign symbol had their way in the public sphere. Now, a darker interpretation of its meaning is gaining traction.
As the debate over the flag reveals, discussions about public policy almost necessarily reduce complex and nuanced phenomenon that reflect a dizzying range of perceptions and understandings to this or that questions. That’s why much of the recent debate on the battle flag has had an either/or flavor. A decision was going to be made so neither side was interested in finding common ground; their goal was to carry the day and impose their view on everyone else. As a columnist, I can tell you that is the nature of the beast.
Despite their bull in a china shop quality, our public conversations about race will (and should) continue. They are external signs of our internal development; they reflect how our thoughts are evolving. A decade ago the broader public was not ready to reconsider the Confederate battle flag; today it is. While the racist murder of nine innocents in Charleston last month sparked a reassessment of the flag, that effort has gained traction because more of us are willing and able to acknowledge that, whatever our view, the battle flag is a painful symbol of oppression for many citizens.
In the years ahead, further progress will depend on our willingness to continue to practice such empathy, to engage one another, openly and safely, about race. This means moving beyond the both contentious declaration of grievances as well as the polite bigotry in which we seem to honor differing perspectives by hearing, but not engaging, them. The best way to resolve differences is to share them in a welcoming environment that assumes the goodwill of all.
The debate over the Confederate battle flag also reminds us of the link between equality and free speech: the right to speak hinges on the capacity of others to listen.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org