Nine people were dead at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The racist had left the building.
On June 17, Dylan Roof stood up from bible study at the South’s oldest black church and drew his gun. Despite pleading from his victims, his bullets raced for their bodies.
With blood spilled on the floor, Roof attempted suicide before fleeing the old church.
Upon capture, he was charged with nine counts of murder and possession of a firearm during commission of a violent crime. Roof had acted alone.
In a jarringly altruistic moment at the videoconference hearing, survivors and relatives of the victims told Roof to his face that they forgave him. Nonetheless, many—including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley—called for the death penalty. As of now, Roof is awaiting a January trial.
While some zealous conservative pundits decreed the incident an attack against religion, sources quickly confirmed that Roof had targeted the church because of its roots in black history.
All flags were lowered to half-staff at the State House the day after the shooting. All except one, that is: the Confederate Flag. It apparently lacked a pulley system to be lowered. It had to be physically taken down.
This past summer, I spent a week as a student at Clemson University, South Carolina’s pride and joy when it comes to higher education, where I conversed with professors, college students, and high schoolers who work in, live and often breathe the South. For them, the shooting was practically right next door.
It’s important to note how culturally different the South can appear to be from Los Angeles. Rather than rail on and on about the much touted disparities in socio-economic equality or dwell on Caitlyn Jenner’s sex change, southerners often consume their discourse with Bible Study. Indeed, Clemson is widely acknowledged by Princeton Review and others as one of the most conservative campuses in the country.
But naturally, there has been plenty of university talk about the shootings and about race in general. Clemson has recently denounced one of their founders, an outspoken racist.
A Southern Californian, and this Chadwick student in particular, can also be struck by the way African-Americans tend to stick in clans. Black students would often sit at the lunch tables in a certain corner, or could be found at this end of the pool but not that end. They could usually be found in the same dorm rooms as well.
There’s no discernible reason, but it seems passively accepted by everyone. It’s almost like a little pocket of the effects left over from when the South was a racist hell-hole. While the slums of Los Angeles may be more racially bent to one group, our part of the country seems to be vastly more integrated in that sense. It makes one wonder if all of Chadwick’s various undertakings to promote diversity are hitting the right targets.
The opinions of individuals I talked to about the shootings and the Confederate Flag were mixed. But they were impressively candid about what Southern Californians usually consider an uber-sensitive topic.
Que Anthony, a senior at Clemson, believed that taking down the Confederate Flag was a good thing, if not nearly enough.
“I feel like whether the flag is up or down, it’s still going to be an issue,” she said.
Dr. Colin Pearce, a Clemson professor of political science wrote via email: “The difficulty here is with historical consciousness. The problem with the ‘American Mind’ almost since the ‘get-go’ has been a lack of ‘historicity.’ Many Americans know very little of the past of their own country let alone others. The more the symbols and the remnants of the past are removed the less likely is it that any curiosity to know what this or that statue, or memorial or plaque or flag is all about.”
“To take the Confederate Flag out of the public space and into the museum will just mean that only museum goers will be prompted to ask what it represented and why it is significant…”
“Think of the bills used for currency. The historical figures on them remind us every day of the past. If we just had a picture of the Grand Canyon on them no one would get any sense of the nation’s past from them.”
Professor C. Bradley Thompson, Executive Director of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism, had a slightly different diagnosis.
“I think it’s entirely appropriate for the state government to take down the Confederate Flag from government buildings,” Thompson said.
“I don’t see what relevance it has to be flown on any government building, and given its history, I think there’s very good reason to not want to fly it. That said, I do know that a lot of South Carolinians, white and black, have a great affection for the Confederate Flag and, for them, it has nothing to do with what it’s often portrayed as representing. So there’s a culture clash, I think, between those who still want to be able to fly it either privately or on war memorials and those don’t.”
“I think the very best thing that has come out of this controversy is a conversation about the meaning of that flag. I think that’s an important conversation to have and I don’t think it’s one that people have had for a very long time.”
Some of the most eye-opening exchanges I had took place in the Clemson dorms. Larry Wilson, a sophomore from Georgia, brought up how the Georgian flag’s design was based on that of the old Confederate Flag; he said he wouldn’t want the Georgian flag taken down as well.
Wilson said that we should judge cases by the standard of heritage.
“If it’s a part of somebody’s heritage, then they should be allowed to do it,” he said. “The flag was not a part of slavery or racism. They [the Confederates] did it because they wanted their own freedom.”
Upon getting to the fundamental nature of the two competing visions of the North and South, an anonymous high school junior from New England joined the conversation. He pointed out that “the Confederacy was not entirely based on slavery.”
Timothy Holmes, a confident African-American and rising high school sophomore who lives near Clemson declared that no African-American (or at least himself) cares about the flag. He said the decision should be left to the public.
“It’s a matter of respect for people who died and what their cause was,” Holmes said. “There was no fundamental issue on the nature of government at play.”
After lengthy debating, we shook hands and Holmes invited me into a dorm where his friends were gathered. The same clannish group of African-Americas I mentioned before looked at me calmly as I entered the room. Sprawled about on the floor, one of them asked me to explain my own theory on the Confederate Flag, after which one of the group leaders looked at me and said after a pause, “I like that.”
A debate ensued that went from politics to morality and metaphysics to human nature—a far cry from the loud complaints on racism that I had expected. We talked until midnight when a counselor finally told us to shut up… then joined in on the conversation as well.
The discussion showed that there were more fundamental issues at play besides the debates of racism. Before one can get into politics, one must first define his or her principles. It also goes to show that, as Professor Thompson said, perhaps the best thing that can happen from the South Carolina tragedy is a meaningful conversation.
This opinion piece was originally published in the Mainsheet, a publication of Chadwick School in Palos Verdes. Any views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the school.