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After Charleston

Taking down the Confederate flag is a good start, but overcoming centuries of suppression won't be that easy

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"Astonishing." That's the word being used to describe how quickly and decisively so many Southern states have acted to remove the Confederate flag from public display after the Charleston massacre.

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The usual right-wing suspects — Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and pseudo-intellectuals like William Kristol — view these actions to be just another leftist, "politically correct" spasm denying an entire region of the United States its history.

In the meantime, the families of the murder victims have forgiven the murderer; even the President picked up on this theme, urging that we focus on God's "Amazing Grace."

Dylann Roof wanted a race war, but instead he got forgiveness.

Ericka Schiche of Salon.com, however, has a problem with too much grace and not enough action: "Unfortunately, forgiveness, that element of moral sanctity, which facilitates assuaging of grief, has morphed into a barrier obstructing the path to justice and accountability in the United States — a place weakened by the ubiquitousness and insidiousness of racism."

And that's the point. The Charleston police called it a hate crime, and so it was. But it was more — it was a terrorist act. As Jelani Cobb of the New Yorker writes: " ...the murders were intended to intimidate and coerce the black civilian population of Charleston." Cobb quotes from the U.S. Patriot Act: Terrorism "involves acts that are dangerous to human life... and appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population."

To sort through all this — to wrestle with the paradoxes, to better frame perspective about what has often been referred to as America's "original sin" — we should address context and history. Yet we don't.

For the record, the first African-born slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619, when they were immediately put up for sale. Jump ahead 168 years to 1787: Symbolizing the slaves' subhuman status, the Framers of the Constitution agreed to count them as three-fifths of a whole person. Seventy-eight years later, in 1865, Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender and the 13th Amendment ended slavery. Subtract 1619 from 1865 and we get 246 years of legalized slavery. Speaking of perspective, the time frame from ratification of the Constitution to the present is 227 years, or 19 fewer years than the 246 years of legalized slavery.

With President Lincoln dead, the radical Republicans imposed a brutal Reconstruction and the gap of mutual understanding widened. Aided by the Ku Klux Klan, the Senate seniority system, White Citizens Councils and, yes, Wall Street (which made a lot of money off of slavery), the worst of Southern racism gave America another century of Jim Crow laws. There were anti-miscegenation laws, poll taxes, bans on interracial marriage, literacy tests and my personal nominee as the most outrageous, Virginia's 1924 "Racial Integrity Act," which held that "one drop of blood" from either a black person or an Indian meant that you weren't to be considered white. Hitler would have been pleased.

The Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 put a stop to much injustice, but President Johnson predicted that Democrats had lost the South for a generation. As it turns out, LBJ underestimated, as the Nixon/Reagan/Bush x 2 Southern Strategy fanned the flames for decades. All of which leads to another jolting realization: Since 1619, 396 years ago, African Americans have known only 50 years when they enjoyed both freedom and protection from institutionalized racism in America.

But haven't all immigrant groups in America faced discrimination? The Irish, Catholics, Jews, Chinese, Italians, Japanese, Mexicans — they all faced discrimination. But with one big difference: They chose to come here. Their reasons were many and varied: pursuit of religious freedom, escape from poverty, pursuit of riches, escape from tyranny. The list is long. True, some did come as indentured servants. Native Americans were badly discriminated against, too, but only the Africans came as slaves. People to be bought and sold — reduced to property, as the morally bankrupt 1857 Dred Scott decision stated as the law of the land.

Taking down the Confederate flag, while of great symbolic significance, is just the tip of the iceberg. If we don't take on voter suppression aimed at African Americans as well as incarceration rates, poverty and more, we'll just get Sandy Hook II — a trauma with no tangible reform. (To Obama's credit, while talking — and singing — about grace, he did urge that we do more.)

But what are the chances of even redefining "hate crimes" as "terrorist attacks" or of reforming voter suppression? The odds are that once the sound and fury dies down, and after all the flags have come down, the murderer will, as the New Yorker's Cobb writes, "be dismissed as a deranged loner, connected to nothing broader." Cobb ends on this telling note: "Even if he acted by himself, he was not alone."

Indeed, Dylann Roof was influenced by ghosts that have been haunting America for almost four centuries. ♦

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