It’s been quite a week for racist symbols. It took the murder of nine black churchgoers at the hands of a killer steeped in Confederate and apartheid logos and logic, but politicians have started removing rebel flags and other symbols of Dixie from places we’d thought they were nailed to (like Alabama’s capitol grounds, and South Carolina’s, where the Stars and Bars will need a two-thirds majority vote of both houses to come down).
There is even an “Et tu?” quality to the defenestration, since it has often been Republican politicians and corporations like Walmart who have suddenly realized that these symbols can be hurtful “to some.”
And the Charleston murders have galvanized a US president to publicly say the n-word to explain why not ever saying it in public does not magically end racism—anymore, he might have added, than electing a black president does. As President Obama said on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast:
And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say “nigger” in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened two to three hundred years prior.
Likewise, racism doesn’t vanish by deleting the Confederate flag or statues of Jefferson Davis from public property. It’s good that government institutions shed them, just as it’s good that white people refrain from casting racial slurs. But the danger, of course, is that we won’t move beyond treating civil rights as an exercise in symbol management.
Clearly, symbols reflect a society’s history, and the Charleston murders changed ours. In fact, you have to ask if Dylann Roof had not been photographed sporting white-supremacist tags and the battle flag of Northern Virginia, would we even be talking about taking down the flags now?
We all think in symbols—they’re fundamental to language—but the right, in its arthritic aversion to progressive political correctness, seems particularly prone to interpret symbols as narrowly as possible. When your favorite media, for instance, train you to wear blinders and to ignore context, you might be able to will yourself to believe that the four little words “established by the State” tell you more about the intent of the Affordable Care Act than the hundreds of thousands of words surrounding them. With so many Republicans denouncing the Supreme Court ruling in favor of Obamacare and vowing to fight on, repeal-and-replace is well on its way to becoming the new Lost Cause.
And so when Obama used a bad word to discuss the complexities of racism, it jostled the conservative mind. The right couldn’t, or wouldn’t, see it in context.