THE SLEIGHT OF HAND was extraordinary. Even to an experienced observer of the hype machine that in this country we call politics, the transition seemed almost magical, so deft and quick it was easy not to see it. You know how this story begins. On the evening of June 17, a young white man named Dylann Roof entered the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina and commenced to kill nine African-American parishioners. No matter how many analogous atrocities had piled up in the previous months and years, we reacted not just with outrage and grief but with well-practiced dismay: this sort of thing wasn’t supposed to happen anymore, not in this country at least. Maybe in another era, a full half-century ago in a South that was not yet “New.” Maybe in some faraway corner of the globe visible to us only through shaky YouTube videos, some barbaric place where inscrutable extremists slaughtered ethnic and religious minorities as they knelt in prayer. But it did happen here, in an America that many still want to believe is, if not quite “post-racial,” at least no longer ruled by the exterminatory logic of white supremacy. And so the country reeled. We were not who we thought we were. Again. Or not, at least, who we wanted to be.
But maybe we were. Maybe everything could be okay. American innocence is self-renewing, and there’s an election nigh — it’s only 17 months away — and no shortage of fools hogging cameras. Most of them did their best to pretend that this massacre, authored by an eminently clear-headed young man devoted to the defense of his race and its privileges, had nothing to do with topics that white people in America would rather not address. Such as race. Specifically whiteness, and its violence, and the degree to which that violence is woven into the fabric of nearly every aspect of our society and its governing bodies, and has been from the start. For instance: police forces in the southern states arose directly out of pre-Civil War slave patrols established to catch runaways and to crush insurrection. One early South Carolina law establishing such patrols obligated all whites to whip any black person they encountered on the roads without a pass. Blacks who resisted this punishment could be killed with impunity. (Trayvon Martin’s encounter with George Zimmerman had some history behind it.) After the Civil War, writes historian Sally Hadden, “the more random and ruthless aspects of slave patrolling passed into the hands of vigilante groups like the Klan,” while the police “continued to carry out those aspects of urban slave patrolling that seemed race neutral,” but that in practice were anything but. Both groups, in other words, have been dedicated from birth to the preservation of white privilege through violence. And both, Dylann Roof believed, had been slacking. “We have no skinheads,” he wrote in an online manifesto, “no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”
White America has become expert at unseeing. Roof, suggested South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, was just, “one of these whacked out kids. I don’t think it’s anything broader than that.” Former Texas Governor Rick Perry got a scolding in the press for characterizing the shooting as an “accident.” He later backtracked, but went on to propose that the real issue was Root’s alleged drug use. The mannequins on Fox News did what they could, ignoring all evidence to the contrary to insist that the slaughter was a crime of religious discrimination, against a group that was indeed cruelly persecuted from the first to the fourth century AD: Christians. They found a black pastor who agreed with them, and who pronounced his readiness to stand armed at the pulpit to protect his faith. White Christian viewers, or at least the most spongy-headed among them, could take shelter under the soft blanket of shared victimhood.
But the events of the last 10 months made such obvious obfuscation harder than usual to pull off. They should have anyway. In Ferguson, New York, Baltimore, and Sanford, Florida, a few months earlier, white men, usually but not always bearing badges, murdered black men and boys with the official blessing of the courts. The figure went viral: every 28 hours a black man was killed by a police officer, security guard, or “vigilante” granted immunity by the law. Dylann Roof was no lone gunman. Who could still pretend that racism in America was a matter of sentiment, of simple ignorance, leftover prejudices from an embarrassing past, and that it wasn’t built into the structure of things? The scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore gives racism a more robust definition: “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” White liberals could feel good about the president’s skin color, but who could maintain that we were less racist when in 2014 more than three times as many black Americans were killed by police than were lynched each year during the Jim Crow era?
A lot of people, it turned out. As the flames rose in Ferguson and then in Baltimore the story morphed to a narrative that white America knew how to digest. Institutional racism in all its forms — not only murder with a badge on it, but radically unequal access to healthcare, education, and employment — would quickly be forgotten. They were burning their own neighborhoods! They were stealing diapers! And throwing rocks at police! The problem was no longer that the same police had with impunity been shooting real bullets at unarmed black men for decades. The problem, as always, was black pathology — irresponsibility, lousy parenting, inveterate criminality. And by a too-familiar media sorcery, the police were recast as victims, the victims as villains. America could be innocent again.
Roof’s victims, gathered in prayer, wouldn’t be so easy to smear. Clementa Pinckney was a state senator. Susie Jackson was 87 years old. Daniel Simmons was 74. Ethel Lee Lance was 70. None of them wore hoodies. After the first option — pretending that race had nothing to do with it — didn’t take, another possibility presented itself. The day after the shootings, a call went out. The Confederate flag still flew on the grounds of the state capitol in Columbia. It must come down. The call was more than earnest: the flag’s presence was a humiliating insult, an unabashed display of nostalgia for the good old days of white supremacy, the celebration of a centuries-old “heritage” — not of hate, Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out, but of plunder, an organized system of ethnic piracy that for centuries has worked to transform black blood into spotless white coinage.
Overnight, the story changed. It was as if the Confederate flag had killed those nine black worshippers, not Dylann Roof or the country that reared him. The flag stole the headlines and dominated the television news. White America had found a fast route back to innocence. All we had to do was take down that flag and exile it to a museum, where the past belongs. Did the Republican candidates support removing the flag? They did! South Carolina legislators voted 103 to 10 to consider a bill that would banish the banner to “the Confederate Relic Room for appropriate display.” Maybe the South really had changed. Maybe all of us had. And so we agreed: The flag must come down. Not the reality that it symbolized — which was not dead or banished but pulsing, breathing, bleeding — but the symbol. Then we could move on, safely, to whatever the next news cycle has to offer.
I have another suggestion. Until we summon the courage to become something different, let us remember who we are. Let the Confederate battle flag fly. It is an ugly and an offensive symbol, but the reality that it represents, which is not past, is uglier still, and all the more so because we so willfully ignore it. As long as black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, as long as black Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed, to be impoverished, and to be hungry as the rest of the population, the Confederate flag will be no relic. So let it fly. Not just outside the statehouse in Columbia, and not just in the South, but outside every government building in the United States. Let it fly from every courthouse, every police station, every prison. In New York as well as Ferguson, in Oakland and Los Angeles as well as Sanford and Charleston. Let it fly in front of every public school, just above the metal detector, where the armed policeman waits. Let it fly from every bank too, every mortgage lender, and every payday loan shop. Let it fly above every far-flung US military post in every corner of the globe. Let police officers wear it on their shoulders beneath the other flag, or above it. Slap it on the uniforms of our troops. Paint it on our bombers. Stamp it on our drones. Let the flag fly. Let the flag fly, a mirror on a pole, and a reminder that there is a great deal of work to be done.