Monday, June 29, 2015

“Get Over It and Move On”

I’ve tried to shake it but I can’t -- for long anyway -- get a comment I heard three days ago in a news report from a small town in South Carolina, less than three miles along US Route 176 from the North Carolina line.

It is along this route, nearly 475 years ago to the day that I heard this quote, that Hernando de Soto marched up into the Blue Ridge Mountains, becoming the first European to explore inland across the Southeast.

It would be another 220 years before European settlers reached this area, a few bringing or obtaining enslaved African Americans, some as status symbols.

It wouldn’t be until 15 years after the Civil War that the little town was established, the year that a white supremacist organization called the Ku Klux Klan began to terrorize African Americans and white sympathizers along both sides of the border here.

Until now, I’ve only known the area from its reputation as a spectacular motorcycle route.  But the statement by a resident there last week ruined that impression.

It was a reaction to calls by the legislator representing the area to remove the Confederate battle flag from where it flies above the state capitol in the wake of a murder of nine African Americans 228 miles southeast along US Route 176.

He is also a former city council member and mayor of the little town and a close friend and colleague of one of those slain.

The quote from a constituent objecting to the flag’s removal from state property was:

Is it hurting anyone?  No. If somebody has poor feelings about it, get over it and move on.”

Germany has many monuments honoring soldiers who were killed during WWII, including many in the areas my father’s American Tank battalion overran at the end of the war and then dismounted to search for pockets of resistance while liberating Dachau, first of the concentration camps established by the Nazis.

Remembrances for the victims is why places such as Dachau are now monuments.

I know people who lost their German fathers and husbands in that war before immigrating to America.  It is clear that many were caught up in that war without being part of its cause.

But Germany doesn't fly the Nazi flag anywhere, although it makes appearances in museum exhibitions.  In this country, while some collectors may have one that was brought back as a souvenir of war, it is viewed in disrepute, a symbol of white supremacist extremists.

Although, they too might rationalize it by saying “If somebody has poor feelings about it, get over it and move on.”

A far more thoughtful interview last week was with John A Powell, an African American law professor at UC Berkley and author of Racing to Justice: Transforming our Concepts of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society.

From parents who were sharecroppers in the South, Powell reminds us on the program On Being with Krista Tippett that “race is deeply relational.”  Any discussion is about whiteness as much as about color. 

In her blog, Courtney E. Martin writes that “Black people, people of color in general, don’t have the luxury of forgetting, especially as long as white people, particularly the “good ones,” remain so fragile.  She’s referring to our inability to discuss race.

Professor Powell, in his interview, states that “race is in the DNA of this country…it is like gravity.”   Any history of slavery, such as From Slavery to Freedom by the late Dr. John Hope Franklin, Powell would assert is really a history of America told through that institution.

To illustrate that point, he notes that when he taught white students at the University of Minnesota about the history of Native Americans, it was just a lens into the history of America.

He repeats an observation by the African American author Tony Morrison that any discussion of the effects of slavery should include what it’s done to mark the white identity as well.

Powell noted in the On Being interview last week, “The human condition is one about belonging…how we define the other affects how we define ourselves.”

“And so when we define the other as extreme, it means we have to cut off large parts of our self.”

Powell, when he explains that the notion of being American is and has historically been an ever evolving and expanding “we” would agree with the opinion read a few days later by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

The conservative Justice reminds us that the notion of freedom in the Constitution has been forever evolving.  It was first limited to property-owning white men and has been expanded ever since to include all Americans including now the freedom of gay and lesbian Americans to marry.

Kennedy wrote for the majority, “The past alone does not rule the present.  The nature of injustice is that we do not always see it in our own time.  The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all its dimensions…”

He continues, “…and so they entrusted future generations to a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning.”

Honoring war dead such as ancestors who fought to preserve a way of life called slavery is to respect their sacrifice without condoning the injustice requiring it of them.

But flying their flag is an insult, just as flying the Nazi flag is an insult, just as flying the flag of ISIS is an insult to freedom and justice.

The Confederate flag as an artifact of history is important to preserve.  But not when flown, as it has been in South Carolina beginning in the 1960s, to signal refusal to accept the end of desegregation.

But what’s far more important, in my opinion, than all of the energy we spend pushing and pulling over symbols such as a flag, is the need for us to discuss race, white as much as black or brown, beginning with implicit bias.

A wonderful start is to read or listen to the words spoken by John A. Powell.

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