With an attitude of reverence for the victims of the Charleston Church Massacre and their families, I joined South Carolinians and people all across the nation and world who thunderously applauded the removal of the confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse.
While the confederate flag was certainly a sign and symbol of racism and hate in southern states, its presence in northern states where I have lived has always been quite perplexing and menacing to many people, myself included. Considering just my most recent northern state of residence, Pennsylvania, where I traveled across the state on an almost weekly basis, I noticed a confederate flag on nearly every trip.
The “In-your-face” racism symbolized by the confederate flag
As I had always interpreted the confederate flag as an “in-your-face” indicator of White supremacist thought as well as a warning of potential violence against known and unknown African Americans (How can people hate those that they don’t even know?), I steered away from gas stations and restaurants where the flag was displayed on parked automobiles and trucks, even if it meant driving many miles to find the services I needed. Of course, I never felt safe on long trips when either my gas tank or my stomach tilted toward empty status!
It is true that the confederate flag lowering or decommissioning in South Carolina was a moment in time that many people thought they would never experience in their lifetimes. With tears in my eyes, I watched the state patrol officers as they dutifully removed that flag from the house that belonged to the people of South Carolina. Alas, the removal of that flag announced to the nation and world that the Statehouse truly belonged to all of the people of South Carolina. As the confederate emblem made its way down the flagpole, it seemed that hopes and aspirations of African Americans and people of goodwill in South Carolina and everywhere were lifted up. No more would that flag cast a state-sponsored, government-endorsed shadow of nullification on the road toward equality and justice.
The flag is down in South Carolina, but our work must continue
As important as the flag lowering was, wisdom and lived experience dictate that we must not take too many victory laps around the Statehouse, for we have important work to do. Whether toting a confederate flag or not, racists with guns and an appetite for violence remain a threat. In addition…
*racist arsonists are yet targeting worship places where African American Christians gather while trying to intimidate African American women pastors;
*state legislatures continue to initiate and uphold Voter ID laws and restrictive voting opportunities in ways that seek to deny scores of African Americans their hard-gained right to vote;
*corporations are allowed to dump toxic chemicals into the water systems where African Americans and the poor receive their drinking water;
*racist employment practices and White-privileged decision making create hostile work environments for African Americans in corporate and religious institutions;
*racial profiling in law enforcement leads to unjust arrests and deaths of African American people; and
*African Americans continue to be incarcerated and sentenced to death at rates that are both disproportionate to their population percentage and higher than the incarceration and death sentence rate for Whites.
After the Charleston Church Massacre, the Black Church fires that followed, and the perverse continuation of questionable deaths of African Americans in custody or pursuit by law enforcement personnel, many people wonder aloud (some for the first time) how they could best respond to systemic, unchecked racism and racial violence.
With the diligent crafting of Civil Rights laws, the desegregation of schools, the hiring of African Americans to key leadership and executive roles in public and private organizations as well as secular and religious institutions, and the election of an African American to the presidency, many people might consider last week’s flag lowering as a slam dunk, game over move on racism. However, those who benefit from the matrix of White supremacy always seem to be able to change their jerseys or uniforms, bend a rule or two, and keep their corruption alive and moving. So, what can be done?
I think two things must be done in every US organization, institution, and system of life: First, the adoption a non-negotiable stance that all life matters is an absolute must. It must come along with a descriptive declaration that our society has absolutely no people or racial/ethnic groups that it can afford to lose, and that regardless of race, age, physical condition, sexual orientation and gender identification, religion, or sex, everyone is equal, valuable, and has something to offer for the common good.
Black Lives Matter and the Inadequacy of Colorblindness
Second, if we really desire to be taken seriously as agents of anti-racist change and true goodwill (there can be no goodwill as long as systemic racism is tolerated), we must now declare fundamentally, that Black Lives Matter. As historic and recent acts of racial violence and discrimination have been demonstrably non-vague while displaying devastating particularity in their assault on Black lives, our affections, energies, and commitments to fairness, peace, and justice must be non-vague and particular as well.
Adopting a Black Lives Matter institutional stance means the guardians of tradition and order will go out of their way to inspect and evaluate their executive, operational, and programmatic methods of functioning to ensure that the history, values, and aspirations of African American people are woven into the fabric of how they conduct their affairs. It means that they will both hire African American people as well as build the kinds of internal structures that enable African American leadership and service to flourish.
A Black Lives Matters approach would mean that before White staff persons are hired, they are vetted for their multicultural competence as well as past successful performance when working with and for African American leaders and staff persons. You see, in many venues, only African Americans must prove and embody such dualism. If Black lives truly matter, anti-racism education will not be reduced to an every-three-years half-day seminar; it would be part of the ongoing professional development of all employees and volunteers. Methods of promotion, evaluation, compensation and more must pass through the prism of an anti-racist analysis of institutional power and decision making. This requires us to know that even though an organization may have African Americans in key leadership or executive positions, actual decision making and truth authenticating power may very well have been reserved for Whites whose presence transcends official titles and positions. This is how White privilege works.
Accordingly, each of our organizations and our society at large must awaken from the social anesthetic of colorblindness that dulls sensibilities and weakens appreciation of the unique set of circumstances that African Americans of all walks of life confront and contend with every day, even within their places of employment and as they pursue the goods and services necessary for healthy and productive living. During a time of overt and covert racial antagonism, colorblindness is an inadequate response for these reasons:
*Colorblindness mutes and conceals the piercing realities that some folks really do hate Black folks, while others, through White privilege, contribute to the demise of Black success and progress whether they intended to or not.
*Colorblindness gives permission to skip or exclude classes on African American history and thought or to avoid gaining non-superficial knowledge of African American life through the written words and values of actual African American people.
*Colorblindness produces cultural arrogance that makes some in institutional life believe that what works for White people works for all people, while it justifies and accepts White privileged leadership, decision-making, and rules on what makes for fairness.
Clearly, colorblindness is no friend to racial justice.
People who have expressed a colorblind approach to racial diversity and racism are often well-meaning individuals. Even so, I frequently recommend that these fine folks consult a licensed ophthalmologist, for I want them to be able to get a clear, unobstructed look at the color of my skin and intentionally and proactively get to know my story and the stories of people who look like me.
This time, if we really intend to have more than a temporary post-tragedy wave of goodwill and change with respect to racial justice and inclusion, we have to take bold, decisive, and accountable steps that ensure that the histories, perspectives, contributions, and aspirations of African American people are sewn into the very fabric of American life, thus creating a mainstream that is truly is mainstream.
In our workplaces and offices, Black Lives Matter.
In our churches or synagogues or mosques, Black Lives Matter.
On the governing boards and personnel committees where we are positioned, Black Lives Matter.
In our networks of social impact and political influence, Black Lives Matter.
In the practice of real estate and shaping communities, Black Lives Matter.
In the places we spend our money and make monetary investments, Black Lives Matter.
In public and private education systems, Black Lives Matter.
Teach it. Preach it. Look for it. Demand it.
The Charleston Church Massacre served as yet another indicator that the age of colorblind racial innocence in America is over. In fact, such an approach contributes to the unchallenged, oft-denied matrix of racist thought and action. No longer will speeches, good wishes, rallies, and symbolic acts be accepted as proof that we have overcome for once again, reality tells us our work to rid ourselves of systemic racism is not finished and our mission to neutralize White privilege is incomplete. We need systems that allow all to triumph and trivializing none.
The work to uproot racism and end racial discrimination and violence is not limited to any one political party or religious orientation. Further, it must not be assigned to “blue ribbon” committees or task forces that produce reports that scarcely influence the direction of their main bodies.
This must be an “all in” effort for all of us.