How do you think Dylann Roof is reacting to the current “purge,” and there is no other word for it, of all things associated with the Confederate States of America? From statehouses to retailers, it is as if we have decided to rid ourselves of anything that does not condemn the Confederacy. Do you think this mania does anything but feed his paranoia? I don’t know if you have ever met a Klan member, but I have, and I can promise you all this mania is doing from their perspective is making their point.
Do you think there will be one less racist out there when all this is done? How many minds does this change about the stuff that really matters? Ugly things start this way. With extreme rapidity this has gone from one picture of a heinous murderous madman, to a reasonable proposal that a state remove one symbol that can be construed as solidarity with the madman, to a symbolic purge. Where will it go next? Some of the possibilities are frightening.
There are two really important things that need to be said here. One, this is a major leadership fail on the part of the president. Secondly, this kind of stuff does not win hearts and minds.
Obama said plainly, immediately after the Charleston shootings that it was not enough to grieve and mourn – that something had to be done. So people have landed on the first available target for action and they are increasingly looking more like a mob than a movement. The president’s job is to unite and heal the nation and he has instead set loose a force that has the potential to become a firestorm.
He could have said that while the shootings were the acts of a racist madman, that his presidency was a symbol of how far the nation had come. He could have pointed out that while sadly there are still racists among us we are not a racist nation. But instead he dredged up 50-year-old memories of conspiracies and systematic racism. And he combined this with a call for action, when the best thing would have been to call for calm.
If things do not get out of hand here, this will be another misstep in an administration of missteps. But this has the potential to blow into something much bigger than it already is. If it does indeed blow up, this stands to be the biggest failure of a failed presidency.
The Obama presidency is of itself the biggest testament to the fact that symbolism does not always change the way things actually are. We elected an African-American president – that should be a symbol of just how much this country has changed in its attitudes about race. But instead cities have seen the return of race riots and a mass killing has created a purge. The symbol does not match the reality.
Purging retailers of confederate flag merchandise and vandalizing statues of officials of the confederacy will do nothing to actually improve race relations in this country. Moreover it stands to worsen them. How long will it be before some well-meaning restaurant owner will not serve a patron because they are carrying a confederate flag handkerchief? And when it happens how will that be any different than a “Whites Only” sign in the window? Symbols are meant to be outward expressions of inward change. But forcing a symbol of change on someone that has not changed makes an enemy, it does not change them.
Saddest of all is that in this mania to purge the confederate flag, we have lost sight of the best possible example of how to change hearts and minds. The families of Roof’s victims have not called for removing the flag – they offered Roof forgiveness – they reached out to the man that caused them so much grief in Christian love. I don’t know if that can reach someone as mentally broken as Roof appears to be, but I do know that such Christian love can reach the heart of your ordinary racist. I’ve seen it happen.
Years ago, I did Young Life work in the inner city. It took me a long time to get close to some of the kids. They assumed that as a white man I had some agenda other than their well being. They did not trust anyone white. That may not be racial hatred, but it is a form of racism. There are few things in my life that have been more rewarding than when I could see the love of Christ overcome that barrier, and it did many times.
Race relations in this country are not where they should be, but they cannot be fixed through government action or symbolic purges. It’s going to take something much more powerful, and slow acting.