I've been following the Charleston massacre and its aftermath on TV and in the print media, and I've been amazed at the capitulation by Republicans on the Confederate Flag issue. They've generally tried their damnedest to steer clear of making negative comments about the Civil War era flag. When they were forced to discuss the topic in front of a general audience, they stuck to the party line, saying it's a symbol of the valiant struggle of their ancestors and a symbol of regional pride that has nothing to do with slavery or racism. Now all of a sudden, these same politicians, normally so careful about protecting their right flank, are saying, "Take the flag down from public buildings and off of license plates. It's a divisive symbol of racism and hate."
Why have they given in? No question, they would have preferred to maintain the status quo. Sending dog whistles to racists has been part of the Republican Southern Strategy since the passage of Civil Rights legislation. Why was this event so powerful that it made the walls of resistance come tumbling down so quickly and dramatically? To try and answer that question for myself, I posed a few hypotheticals.
What if Dylann Roof, a raging racist who wrapped himself in the Confederate Flag, had attacked an NAACP gathering at a meeting hall down the street from Emanuel AME Church and killed nine people — upstanding black Charleston citizens similar to those killed in the church? Here's what we would have heard from conservative media. "There's no excuse for what Dylann Roof did, but you can understand some of his anger, given the track record of the NAACP over the years." Then they'd be off to the races, trotting out video of statements made by NAACP leaders at rallies and chewing over some of the positions the organization has taken over the years. That's the classic strategy when faced with difficult truths. Divert and confuse. Soon Roof would be pushed to the background, and the NAACP would be front and center. "Is the NAACP a radical hate group, maybe even a racist organization?" And Republican leaders would breathe a sigh of relief. Dodged another bullet. Another political crisis averted.
Or what if Roof shot up an adult evening class in African American Studies being held in a classroom a few blocks away? "There's no excuse for what Dylann Root did, but those classes teach their students to hate all whites for what went on decades and centuries ago. If they taught balanced history lessons and promoted racial harmony rather than anger . . ." Then away they'd go, galloping down that well worn "angry black man" race track one more time.
But what can anyone say to condemn the people who were massacred by Root? They were devout Christians sitting in church studying the Bible. It's straight out of the "This is what more black people should be like" conservative playbook. There's no narrative they can use to steer the story away from the horrible, racist-fueled massacre and toward the dead or the church. Conservative politicians wrung their hands in dismay. "We can't divert. We can't confuse. We don't have a prayer." So one by one, the former defenders of the Confederate Flag had to concede that, yes, it's a symbol of racism and hatred that divides the nation, and yes, it should be removed from state capitols and other governmental spaces. They didn't have a realistic choice.
There may still be a Plan B waiting in the wings that will mean they won't have to actually change much. Will the legislatures have the votes to take down the flags? In South Carolina, it takes a two-thirds majority, a very high hurdle in a Republican-dominated legislature. Are Republicans hoping the passage of time and maybe a few more shark attacks will make the topic of the Confederate Flag fade to the background? Time will tell. But whatever happens to the flag, it's pretty clear, the Southern Strategy has been injured — not fatally, to be sure, but injured nonetheless.