The Confederate flag flies on the Statehouse grounds in Columbia, S.C., June 23, 2015, one day after South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley announced that she will call for the Confederate flag to be removed.  
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Momentum is building fast as an almost unstoppable wave of outrage calls for the removal of state-sanctioned Confederate flags. The fact that treasonous rebel flags are still flying strong atop or next to government buildings 150 years after the Civil War itself is as surreal as it is, frankly, believable. The rebel jack has always been accepted as a permanent representative of Southern culture, but we could now be entering a phase where collectors might only be able to buy the crossed stars from a local antique shop.

But it’s not really about sincere bursts of comity in the wake of Charleston, S.C., terrorism. Talking up and then taking down a flag is as pre-K easy as putting it up. The hard part is the much more difficult conversation about the racism responsible for its creation in the first place. Yet a clever don’t-talk-about-that political calculus has crystallized with every rebel-flag denouncement. And where there’s a political calculus, you can best believe there are those who capitalize and those who pay a price.

Advertisement

Activists will claim the win: It was #TakeTheFlagDown social media mavens and committed commentators like Karen Hunter pushing petitions on MoveOn.org who put enough pressure on longtime flaggers to fold—and, as a side benefit, even got a handful of retailers to clear the racist symbol off their store shelves.

A Southern star rises: South Carolina’s relatively poll-popular, woman-of-color Republican Gov. Nikki Haley just engineered one of the most elaborate media schemes in recent memory. The rebel jack is still flying, and as predicted, state lawmakers are making its removal harder than it should be. But Haley is getting national platitudes for what’s being politically photoshopped as some sort of brave stand against rebel-history revivalists. That has catapulted the onetime sex-scandal survivor into 2016 presidential running mate mentions and made her a potential U.S. Senate contender if current Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) hangs it up by 2020.

Does anyone remember the Charleston victims and their families? We can’t imagine the terror and pain of the victims that fateful night; nor can we begin to grasp the grief of their families. But the politically engineered flap over the flag has created a distressingly separate vortex of talking points that have overshadowed the stories of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church’s terror victims. There has been little national reflection on those victims, even as their funerals have taken place. Worse still, the rebel jack was still flying as pastor and state Sen. Clementa Pinckney’s casket slowly rolled past the Statehouse grounds.

Advertisement

The Republican rope-a-dope: The Grand Old Party played a reverse-course political head fake that rescued them from their bumbling missteps in response to the shooting. Not only do they get to look as if the flag removal was their idea, but here’s the bonus: They can avoid that really tough discussion on systemic racism (with mainstream media happy to oblige).

The eulogizer in chief: Poised to give the eulogy at Emanuel AME on Friday for the slain pastor, President Barack Obama may have a chance to find his moment, to define the worst terrorist attack on a black church since 1963. In the aftermath of the shooting, with his first statement coming an excruciating 15-plus hours after South Carolina’s tragedy, he seemed to struggle to find an eloquent stride on our much-needed racism discussion. And though we appreciated what he was saying when he dropped the n-word to make a point, the public discourse in response was distracting.

The gun lobby: Just when you thought you’d at least get a spirited and necessary post-massacre debate on gun control, along comes that rascally rebel flag stealing the show. That’s exactly what Second Amendment hustlers like the National Rifle Association want: to keep public discourse as far away as possible from the question of how Dylann Roof acquired his weapon and the many states, particularly red ones, that continue pushing dangerous “right to carry” laws.

Symbols vs. substance: Talk all we want about belligerent rednecks proudly waving rebel flags or the need for a conversation on race. But what about the institutional racism baked into every facet of American political, social and economic life? Talking about race is actually the easy part. But let’s get to the brass tacks of racism. Let’s tackle persistent disparities in education, employment, health care, wealth and income, shall we? We’re still finding way too many African Americans no better off economically than they were in 1970. That’s what politicians don’t want to discuss or find policy solutions for, especially Republican politicians who can walk, chew gum and racially dog-whistle at the same time.

Flag up or down, black South Carolinians are still faced with a 28 percent poverty rate, according to the Kaiser Foundation—and the seven states known to either fly the Confederate flag, license-plate pimp or incorporate some version of Confederate symbolism into their official flags have black poverty rates at 25 percent or higher. Mississippi’s poverty rate is 40 percent; Tennessee’s is 41 percent. And black unemployment in South Carolina—something Haley fails to mention—is now nearly 12 percent, versus only 4.6 percent for whites, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

The more we talk about a symbol, the less time we spend on a plan to eliminate the racism that motivated Roof and has kept on oppressively ticking since slavery.

Advertisement

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.