It took the actions of a white supremacist to finally convince white political leaders in South Carolina to call for the Confederate flag to be brought down. While the move was widely applauded, the gesture was largely symbolic and further proof that staunch, long-held beliefs can easily change with enough public pressure.
Even Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, and one of DiversityInc’s 25 Noteworthy Companies for 2015 — which has sold Confederate flag-related merchandise for decades — announced Monday night that it is removing all merchandise depicting the flag from its stores and website to avoid “offend[ing] anyone.”
Reacting to days of relentless pressure from social media, the mainstream media, civil rights activists and others, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley held a news conference Monday to call on state lawmakers remove the flag from Statehouse grounds. Standing together with Haley was South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a 2016 presidential candidate, who just last week defended the flag as “part of who we are.”
Following Haley’s announcement, however, Graham said in a statement that he “hope[s] that, by removing the flag, we can take another step towards healing and recognition — and a sign that South Carolina is moving forward.” And within minutes, nearly all of the GOP presidential candidates who for the past week had declined to take a position on the flag had come around, agreeing with the calls for its removal.
Whether due to the beginning of a presidential election cycle, mounting pressure from social and mainstream media or a sign that the United States is becoming more tolerant of diversity or intolerant of racial injustice, the issue of race relations is taking center stage in shaping the 2016 presidential campaign.
While the recent church shooting in South Carolina has served as a catalyst for the issue of race relations to boil over into the national discourse, the issue has been brewing at a faster pace during the past year with the outcry over perceived injustices against underrepresented people.
Thanks to the ubiquity of camera phones, the advent of social media and more tolerant attitudes toward diversity, people across the country — and the world — are seeing clear, indisputable video of white police officers choking Black suspects to death, shooting them in the back as they run away or violently taking them into custody.
Even when Black people are not being killed by police, video surfaces of a white police officer manhandling a 14-year-old Black girl in a bikini, throwing her to the ground and kneeling on her back while simultaneously pulling a gun on her Black friends, while the white people standing around are ignored by the police.
Thanks to those videos and public pressure, some police officers have been charged with murder and others forced to resign.
And it was the image of Black community members in Charleston mourning the tragic deaths of churchgoers taking place beneath a high-flying Confederate flag that brought the pressure to take it down.
While America seems to be paying attention to the issue of social injustice more than ever, President Barack Obama said on Monday said, “we are not cured” of racism. “It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.”
Obama, during an interview for Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast, added that, “It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours,” yet “the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives … casts a long shadow, and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on.”
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are currently 784 known hate groups operating across the country, a number that has increased by 30 percent since 2000.
Hillary Clinton weighed in this past weekend with an emotional speech at the United States Conference of Mayors in San Francisco, saying issues of racism should be tackled with “urgency and conviction.”
“Race remains a deep fault line in America,” Clinton said. “It’s tempting to dismiss a tragedy like [Charleston] as an isolated incident, to believe that in today’s America bigotry is largely behind us, that institutionalized racism no longer exists.”
But despite our best efforts and our highest hopes, America’s long struggle with race is far from finished.
“Our problem is not all kooks and Klansmen,” she added. “It’s also the cruel joke that goes unchallenged. It’s the offhand comment about not wanting those people in the neighborhood. Let’s be honest, for a lot of well meaning, open-minded white people, the sight of a young black man in a hoodie still evokes a twinge of fear.”