Removing the symbols of white supremacy will be the easy part

Published June 11, 2020

By Thomas Mills

The country is continuing its remarkable shift toward acknowledging the racism that has plagued our nation. Confederate monuments and statues are falling daily. Despite opposition from the president, the military is ready to rename military bases that bear the names of Confederate generals. In the most eye-opening development, NASCAR announced that Confederate memorabilia is no longer welcome at its tracks. 

While the coalition of the naively racist and the blatantly racist will decry what they consider political correctness run amuck, the rest of the country is finally admitting that glorifying symbols of a cause that supported slavery is deeply offensive to the descendants of those slaves. More importantly, they are acknowledging that the attitudes that would allow those symbols to stand for 150 years have adversely affected Black Americans in devastating ways. Unfortunately, it took the video-taped death of an unarmed African American man to awaken the country. As Americans watched life leave George Floyd, we collectively realized that would not have happened to a white man. 

While this moment in history is dramatic and, in some ways cathartic, we will also learn that removing symbols like flags and statues is the easy part. The struggle will come when we try to address the wrongs suffered by African Americans due to institutional racism. Too many conservatives already deny that the concept even exists. Too many white people still cannot admit that the disparities in wealth, education, opportunity, health outcomes, and living conditions are the legacy of racism. They will instead blame poor personal choices and ignore the historical weight of 400 years of state sponsored and society-sanctioned oppression that quite clearly continues today. Had it ended, we would not be arguing about these monuments to and the symbols of the Lost Cause.   

 Look no further than social media to see where the fault lines lay. Following a peaceful rally in a North Carolina town, one woman posted that she had lived in the community for years and never seen racism until the protests occurred. Another friend on FB asked if anybody actually knew any racists. Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro denies that institutional racism is even a thing. People like them will concede the need to remove symbols of racism and use that support to deny they are racist, but legacy of white supremacy goes deeper than the symbols and its consequences will be with us longer than the statues. 

The impact of racism and white supremacy on African Americans is unique. Black Americans have been systematically denied access to capital and the tools necessary to lift themselves out of poverty. The reason floods from hurricanes disproportionally hurt African Americans in eastern North Carolina is because they were forced into low-lying areas while whites owned the high ground. As they fled the South to escape the confines of Jim Crow, African American refugees in northern cities  were forced into ghettos that received fewer services and less opportunity. In the aftermath of World War II, Black veterans suffered from red-lining and the inability to secure conventional loans from banks. As a result of these and other policies, the wealth disparity today is staggering. For every dollar held by white households,  Black households have just one cent. 

 The experience of African Americans is unique. Their ancestors did not come to this country seeking a better life and more opportunity. They were herded onto ships and, when they arrived, their captors treated them more like livestock than fellow humans. Once the Civil War freed them from bondage, they only fared marginally better in many parts of the country as laws and terror kept them second-class citizens. Even after the Civil Rights Movement, they were never compensated for the indignities they suffered or the opportunities they were denied by both the state and private sector. 

The monuments that are just beginning to come down should be a stark reminder to the country that the injustices imposed on Black Americans survive today. Those who told us for decades that the symbols of white supremacy were about heritage are the same ones who tell us that the market will rectify the economic wrongs done to African Americans. They may watch the monuments come down and the symbols of white supremacy disappear, but they will resist providing Black Americans the tools and opportunities necessary to achieve equality. That’s the battle that begins in earnest today.