Wednesday, June 24, 2015
While we applaud House Speaker Phillip Gunn's statement this week that the Confederate emblem should be removed from Mississippi's state flag, we would sound a note of (optimistic) caution.
Gunn's statement only surprised us a little, as we've heard rumblings that some in the Mississippi GOP hoped to change the flag. This week, with cover from the Southern Baptist Convention and similar moves in South Carolina in light of the tragic murders in a historic black church, this is the time for Mississippians to take an important step.
Yes, the flag is a problem. It's a reminder of an oppressive regime of state-sponsored apartheid, and its presence is a direct offense to many Americans. It is also a problem for economic development. What's important, though, is that the flag debate doesn't just take place in the context of "change is good for business" but also in terms of "truth and reconciliation." Changing the flag is an important step in making progress toward racial equity and economic prosperity. But it's only one step.
For Mississippi to embrace racial and ethnic equity, we have broader needs, including a look at all the ways that the state and other institutions have been racist in the past and present—from slavery, to Jim Crow, to housing policy, to the drug war, to public education and even resistance to Medicaid expansion. This is a conversation many conservatives don't want to have. They want to believe racial inequity is behind us. But that ignorance makes the discussion that much more important.
It's noteworthy that Gunn was also one of the authors of "42A," the constitutional amendment meant to thwart the good-faith, public-referendum process to adequately fund public education that the people of Mississippi undertook in the purest democratic way. The state GOP's unprecedented meddling in the referendum process in an anti-democratic atrocity they need to overcome.
The way is to embrace a wider dialogue on economic inequality that includes "truth and reconciliation," something that could be done with existing organizations such as the William Winter Institute of Racial Reconciliation and Jackson 2000 (JFP publisher Todd Stauffer is a board member).
The flag is an economic issue—but so are structural and institutional racism. Racist policies of the past begat racist policies of the present—and while the history of dehumanizing, demonizing and humiliating people with dark skin is somewhat documented, we haven't talked enough in Mississippi about how these policies have harmed non-whites' opportunities to generate and hold wealth in ways that their white counterparts have. And sustained wealth (even middle-class wealth) results in more options for families, communities and cities.
In Mississippi, this touches so many parts of our lives, from the struggles of parents with kids in public schools to Jackson's struggles in maintaining its infrastructure and attracting new businesses. Understanding that history, and how it got us to where we are today, is just as important as changing the flag for the state's potential for progress.
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