Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Symbol Change is More Than Symbolic Change

Now that we see some real momentum in people pulling down the confederate flag (and yes, pedants, it has another name, but if this annoys one racists, woot!) we have people pooh-poohing this sea change.

It is just a symbol, they say.  This is not real change.  Well, if it is so trivial why do people think it is so important?  Politics is just like symbols--intersubjective.  That is, we as a society give meaning to stuff, and that meaning resonates.  It shapes perceptions of what is permissible, what is impermissible.  Tomorrow, African Americans will still be overrepresented in our prisons, and more African American men will be killed by cops in the days and months ahead.  Taking down the flag does not remove guns from any racist, nor is Walmart ceasing to sell guns.

BUT this really is a learning moment--that norms of society are shifting, recognizing that racism still exists in a big way, that a key symbol of racism is not to be tolerated, that the myths about the Civil War are to be busted again and again until people get it.  This will not eliminate racism nor the racists, but it is creating political mobilization and not just among the haters who have been mobilized since a multiracial man with a foreign name became President. 

While we can debate how much progress has or has not been made and what needs to be done next, removing the symbols of hate helps remove the signal sent that it is ok to discriminate, that it is ok to exclude, that it is ok to hate openly.  The metaphor I am struggling with is one of insurgency--that the insurgents need a sea in which to swim.  That they need support from the populace.  Changing attitudes and providing a clearer view of what is acceptable may make more transparent the sea in which white supremacists swim, making it harder to hide.  Maybe the next time a friend obsesses about race, his friends might say--you know, he might hurt someone, I should tell someone, instead of saying, well, we all make racist jokes.  Maybe not. 

This gets to something I have been thinking about. This murderer's friends knew he was a flaming racist, but thought that making jokes and threats was no big deal.  My hope is that the sea change in attitudes (not of everyone but of opinion leaders, corporations, and media coverage) makes it just a bit harder for white supremacists to be comfortable.  Because I do believe the US is fighting a counter-insurgency against white supremacists who have killed far more Americans since 1995 than Muslim Americans have. UPDATE: See NYT piece that makes this last point

Winning a counter-insurgency requires identifying the enemy and discriminating in the use of coercion against those who are aiming to do violence.  The reactions to the events of last week have been real and substantial even if they seem symbolic.  There is far more to be done, but far more has happened in the last few days than I expected.  South Carolina may fail to move the confederate flag, but Sears, Walmart and others have changed policies that will be very hard to change back.  Yes, white supremacists can find confederate flag suppliers elsewhere, but the message is being sent.  That the South needs to figure out how to celebrate its heritage, whatever that is, without the hate that is inherent in the confederate flag.  It is awful that it took the loss of nine lives to make a dent in the complacency.  No doubt about it, but it would be worse if the complacency continued after the nine murders.

I am not sure this post is all that coherent, but I am pretty stirred up these days. 

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