So, the Confederate flag will probably come down from the South Carolina state capitol grounds, as it should. I have no patience with those who assert that the flag is a legitimate symbol of the South’s heritage. Yes, it is a symbol, of a long history of racist oppression that culminated in (but didn’t end with) the Confederate States of America. It’s not a history to take pride in. Southerners who want to celebrate their regional heritage had better find other symbols. (Anyway, are there any other regions of the US that claim a special and distinct heritage? What makes the South so different? Do we really need to ask? ) There are still other Confederate memorials sprinkled around the South. As Washington Monthly’s Nancy LeTourneau reports, very near where the Confederate flag flies on the South Carolina capitol grounds is a statue honoring Benjamin Tillman, a post-Reconstruction white terrorist who led massacres of ex-slaves.
The Charleston atrocity has served as yet another grim reminder that we do, indeed still have a race problem in this country. Unlike most of the various police killings and the Trayvon Martin case, there was no ambiguity whatsoever about what happened. This was a raw act of race hatred, recognized as such even by the prominent Republicans who initially equivocated in their assessment of its motivations.
Still, I have to agree (as I seldom do) with David Brooks, who on the PBS New Hour suggested that the killing was indicative not only of our race problem, but of our “angry solitary young man problem.” Racism provided Roof with a rationale for his inchoate anger, but if it were not available, he might well have found other outlets for his urge to violence. Why do we have an angry young man problem? Brooks offered no explanation, but it surely has a lot to do with the fact that there are millions of young people in this country without jobs and without prospects.* That condition disproportionately affects minorities, but there are plenty of white kids in that boat as well, including the Charleston perpetrator. There is no facile understanding to be had of Roof’s depravity, but it is fair to say that the odds he would have turned to multiple homicide would have been reduced had he enjoyed the social connectedness and economic security of, let’s say, a construction job. A serious effort to address the many huge shortcomings in our infrastructure could generate employment for millions of people, but that is not likely to happen as long as Republicans control Congress.
A final note on post-Charleston: President Obama spoke with his characteristic insightfulness and eloquence on the subject of race in his interview with Marc Maron, but most of our media couldn’t handle Obama’s use of the word “nigger.” Newspapers typically reported Obama’s use of “the n-word,” or “n……” (The NY Times was a laudable exception.) Chris Hayes’s MSNBC program bleeped out the offending word in its broadcast of an excerpt from the interview. This is literally childish. (Ooh—he said a bad word!) We should be able to distinguish between the use of a word in a discussion of its significance and its direct use as a pejorative. This silly hypersensitivity is a symptom of the problems we have talking about racism.
* 5.5 million people between the ages of 16 and 24 are neither in school or employed, according to a Social Science Research Council study.