We can no longer claim not to see racism

Issa Hughes, 2, (left) and Zadrian Cleveland, 3, give high fives on stage during a community event Monday night in Portland responding to the attack in Charleston, South Carolina that left nine dead. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Issa Hughes, 2, (left) and Zadrian Cleveland, 3, give high fives on stage during a community event Monday night in Portland responding to the attack in Charleston, South Carolina that left nine dead. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

By all means, take down the damned battle flag in South Carolina.

And get it off the state flag of Mississippi, too.

But if we are going to confront racism, we’re going to have to do a lot more than that.

Today, the flag is a symbol of hate, oppression and defiance – defiance specifically of desegregation. It’s a remnant of Jim Crow.

It’s been co-opted by hate groups and racists since the 1940s, hoisted along with burning crosses as a symbol of intimidation, but millions of people in the South are blind to its meaning.

I should know. I used to be one of them.

Growing up in southwestern Virginia, the far corner of the state tucked deep into the Appalachian Mountains, we were never far from the shadows of the Civil War and its legacy.

The “Southern Cross,” as the flag is sometimes called, was portrayed as a symbol of independence and bravery in battle – “heritage, not hate” as the saying goes.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

We studied the Civil War in school, learned the names of the generals, visited the battlefields and the graves. The “Lost Cause” was ingrained in us early on. The mythology passed on.

The battle flag moved from Confederate memorial services into the political mainstream in the South during the 1940s, when Dixiecrats began using it as part of their protests of changing federal policies.

But its use really took off after the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of public schools.

In 1956, Virginia adopted a policy of “Massive Resistance,” which delayed desegregation in the state well into the 1960s.

The movement went on across the South. In 1956, Georgia added the Confederate flag to its state flag.

Here’s how a 2000 report from the Georgia State Senate described the change: “When the battle flag was incorporated into the Georgia state flag, the state was in a desperate situation to preserve segregation. Resisting, avoiding, undermining, and circumventing integration was the 1956 General Assembly’s primary objective.”

In his 1956 State of the State, Georgia Gov. Marvin Griffin made it clear.

“There will be no mixing of the races in the public schools and college classrooms of Georgia anywhere or at any time as long as I am governor. … All attempts to mix the races, whether they be in the classrooms, on the playgrounds, in public conveyances or in any other area of close personal contact on terms of equity, peril the mores of the South.”

In 1961, George Wallace raised the flag above the State House in Alabama, and South Carolina followed suit in 1962.

The battle flag came off the Georgia flag in 2003, but it has continued to leave a stain.

Racism is persistent and, as happened with the terrorist attack at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, deadly.

Racism flies with the flag alongside interstates throughout the South, where giant Confederate banners flap ominously on hilltops alongside the Crosses of Calvary – never a more ridiculous pairing.

It’s also hidden and denied.

In Maine, a mostly white state, racism reveals itself in political debates about immigration and asylum seekers, in racist mascots and often untold stories of yelled insults and services denied. Today, in our state, people are turned away from stores and restaurants because they’re black. Yeah, really.

The Confederate flag can come down in South Carolina (and, for goodness sake, it should), but that’s not enough.

Most of us live in a white world of privilege, where the outward signs of racism don’t present themselves, and when they do, they are often disguised.

We don’t notice that blacks are arrested more often than whites, that black kids get expelled more or that black job seekers face hurdles unseen by their white counterparts.

For too long, we have been part of the problem because we were silent or, charitably, blind.

No more.

On Monday night in Portland, the community came together in solidarity with Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and in faith to talk about race.

The Rev. Kenneth Lewis said: “I don’t want to be tolerated, I don’t want to be ignored, I don’t want to be placated. I want to be seen, I want to be noticed, I want to be understood, I want to be acknowledged, I want to be respected, because I am not an invisible man.”

Take down the damn flags – all of them.

And then we need to open our eyes, we need to see and we need to act.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com.