The problem is greater than a flag.
Removing the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state Capitol in Columbia, South Carolina, is one step, but it will be interesting to see how far this will go. Rare is the public square anywhere in the former Confederacy that does not feature a monument to the Confederate soldiers. Will all these counties dismantle these monuments?
Over 20 counties in the South, from Lee County, Florida, to Jefferson Davis Parish, Louisiana, to Stephens County, Georgia, to Hood County, Texas, are named in honor of Confederate leaders or heroes.
Seven Southern states long ago adopted official state flags that include Confederate symbols: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee. These flags fly today. In a few cases, the connection is clear. In other cases, it is not.
Even if some wave of popular opinion revealed the origins of all these references to the Confederacy, and in due course all such memorials were removed — if Jefferson Davis Parish in Louisiana, for example, were renamed, or Joe Johnston Avenue in Nashville, my hometown, were called something else — it thereby would not immediately and decisively turn the page in the long, unfortunate history of African-Americans in this country, although it would state a good intention.
The marginalization of African-Americans is too historic, too complex, too intense and too prevailing still to change overnight with the simple removal of a symbol from the public eye.
This is not an excuse for retaining symbols of racism, but it is to say that the plight endured by so many African-Americans today cannot be bettered by one act.
Divisiveness and bigotry endure. In my experience, the greatest damage inflicted upon us all by racial separation has been, speaking as a Caucasian-American, an unawareness of, and even if without any bad intentions whatever, an indifference to the problems inflicted upon others whom we simply do not know.
Several years ago a movie appeared, a true story, “The Blind Side,” about a well-to-do white family in Memphis that befriended an African-American adolescent. As the relationship developed, the sophisticated, well-educated mother of the family decided to go to the young African-American’s neighborhood to locate his relatives. Later, she lunched with friends in a plush restaurant. Her friends asked her why she was so preoccupied. She said, “I have lived in Memphis all my life, and until this morning, I never knew people lived in such conditions.”
In other words, not only had she never personally experienced poverty, she had never seen it. All too many among us do not know what life is for many people who simply are out of sight, out of mind, without any prejudice or racism.
It all is part of a mix. People suffer in this country. Their suffering is, in the Christian sense, a scandal, and it is a serious threat to the overall well-being of America.
As Pope Francis constantly urges, we must look beyond our own backyards and realize what life for Americans outside our immediate view is.
Display of Confederate emblems long has offended African-Americans, and such emblems should be retired.
Awakening all Americans to the injury done by divisiveness among us will not therefore immediately end. Separation among us is not diminishing, it is intensifying.
More and more Americans say that they fear each other, and they have no trust in government, a trust admittedly hard always to cultivate.
We all have work to do.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.