The Priority of Symbolism

By Barney Blakeney   

I have mixed feelings about calls to tear down monuments and stuff related to The Confederacy.

I think symbolism without substance is just so much stuff. But I also know that symbolism can represent stuff that perpetuates things like racism, hate and separatism. Since the melee that broke out in Charlottesville, Va. a couple of weeks ago after protesters clashed over the call to dismantle a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee resulting tin the death of one woman and injury to scores of others, the controversy again has reached a boil.

It’s a national debate, but as usual, I’m more focused on what’s happening right in front of me. The Charlottesville thing was tragic in so many ways. It’s tragic that so many young white males thought they should engage in the protest in the first place.

White supremacy, neo-Nazism, white nationalism – that’s a lot of stuff for guys so young. Fascism and Nazism ain’t new to America. They were here as Adolph Hitler rose to power back in the 1930s. I’m surprised those movements still have so many followers. But then, I was surprised to see so many young whites participate in the sesquicentennial celebrations held in Charleston commemorating the start of the Civil War over 150 years ago. Post racial America!!! That’s a joke!!! One that’s not funny at all.  Apparently another generation of racists is rising in America. And it’s vicious!

FBI statistics reveal in 2015 1,742 law enforcement agencies reported 5,850 hate crime incidents involving 6,885 offenses. According to a news report by The Slate, “Since the election of President Donald Trump, news outlets and social media accounts have swelled with reports of swastikas at schools, racist taunts, and other hate-fueled attacks and acts of intimidation.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which has aggregated media reports and gathered submissions from its website, catalogued 1064 such incidents, 13 of which were later debunked as false reports, in the first month after Trump won the presidency. (Twenty-six of those incidents were perpetrated against Trump supporters.)”

That’s a lot of hate. So I ask myself why local civil rights groups are focused on monuments and flags. Last week the NAACP and the National Action Network held separate press conferences one hour apart. Talk about flags. That sent up a red flag to me. Aren’t they talking to each other? What’s the saying? If you want to travel fast go alone, but if you want to travel far go together. I’m not gonna try to take on the NAACP and NAN here. They’re too big for me. But I’m not the only one making that observation.

I recently saw something from a friend who said, “Don’t take your eyes off the prize – get angry – protest for a minimum living wage, not statues and symbols.” A recent newspaper cartoon depicted a dismantled statue of Robert E. Lee with its roots of racism still intact spreading beneath its base. It took the brutal murder of nine people at Emanuel AME to get South Carolina’s general assembly to remove the Confederate Flag from the Statehouse grounds in 2015. Since then Charlottesville has been only one of many incidents where racism and hatred has resulted in the taking of innocent lives.

Symbolic gestures like the removal of flags and statues are important, but should that be a primary focus for those who want to make things better? We’re starting a new school year following the third annual Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative which revealed only 58 percent of third graders last year were proficient in reading and a dismal 37 percent of eighth graders were proficient in math. And while 84 percent of Tri-County students graduated high school on time last year just 65 percent of them were ready for college level work. While three-fourths of white third graders were proficient in math, but only 36 percent of Black third graders were proficient.

And because our kids get such a disparate education in our schools, they grow up with issues that evolve into other problems. Just days before the Charlottesville tragedy, a 14-year-old boy was arrested in North Charleston and charged in the murders of two young Black men – one 17, the other 22. There have been 25 homicides in the city so far this year. All but two or three of the victims have been Black.

There’s a lot going on. I just don’t see where protesting flags and monuments have priority. When tourism has an economic impact of about $20 billion in South Carolina and lodging sales in the Tri-County accounted for about $1 billion, Blacks own fewer than 10 percent of businesses in the area. I think our focus should be somewhere else. A friend said Saturday, when tour buses roll through Charleston, none stop at the statue of John C. Calhoun on Marion Square.

Don’t get me wrong, I applaud people who are working to eradicate the symbols of hate and subjugation in our community. But I admire the work of brothers like Kwadjo Campbell who walk the walk by developing and implementing processes and projects that advocate and prepare people to fight hate and racism through the power of economic opportunity.

Leave a Comment