Two Flags Over America

A guest contributor contends, before there were stars and stripes and images of coiled snakes in the grass, there were people…

by: Stephen R. Sumner

Last month, President Obama spoke at the Poverty Summit at Georgetown University. He addressed growing violence in communities such as Ferguson and Baltimore. A memorable quote from that event has become relevant again after last week’s shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. President Obama stated, “I think that we are at a moment where it may be possible not only to refocus attention on the issue of poverty, but also maybe to bridge some of the gaps that have existed and the ideological divides that have prevented us from making progress.”

Quite possibly this comment, and thoughts like it, are naive in thinking that a greater sense of national unity is something that can be accomplished here in the United States. From zoning laws that red-line communities along racial boundaries to suburban “white flight” and a lack of access to financial independence, many have suffered at the hands of our defective social policies. However, the problems don’t end there. The divisiveness of our Congress, corrupt state assemblies and ineffective local governments have compounded the problem and stalled or water-downed any attempts at passing meaningful legislation targeting these issues.

After the shooting deaths of nine African-Americans at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, the current debate over South Carolina’s law to maintain the Confederate flag on state grounds exposes a deep divide in the U.S. on both the local and national stage. South Carolina voters do not want the flag removed, although the gap is narrowing, and it would take a two thirds majority in the South Carolina state assembly to do so, and so it remains waving and padlocked at a soldiers’ monument. My opinion is that the problems our society face are less about flags and symbols, and more about how we treat our fellow citizens. Before there were the Stars and Stripes, a Confederate flag and images of coiled snakes in the grass proclaiming “Don’t tread on me,” there were people.

Eminem raps on “White America,” “…with the freest of speech this divided States of Embarrassment will allow me to have”. Our freedom of speech comes with the ability for people to embarrass themselves and offend their fellow citizens. Underneath the symbols and rippling cloth of our flags, lies our national fabric. The problems we are facing are more about closing the economic gap, a massive divide that prevents people from advancing more than than anything else, and more broadly, how this divide serves to handicap our national progress.

Even though it offends and disrespects millions, many people still believe that the Confederate Flag is the “symbol of the South” and thus should endure. We see the Confederate flag at parades, political demonstrations and on national holidays, but we also see it burned in effigy and scorned in hatred by those who reject its symbolism. Over time, this symbol has been reborn to endorse hatred, a bygone culture and reversion. It dilutes the red, white and blue of Old Glory, which stands as a rejection at its very root, of slavery and an endorsement of our hard won freedoms and of the Union.

But we must broaden the scope of how we view the purpose of America, especially after promoting “freedom” to the rest of the world for decades. We are more than just a series of symbolic statements. Preserving our Union today means insulating ourselves from further economic and cultural division, which will set us on the path towards averting the all too-common tragedies like Charleston which plague our country. Closing the gap is more than waving a flag, more than expressing our freedom of speech, it’s about bringing people closer together, not pushing them farther apart, something that’s more than critical to preserving our Freedom.

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