Ever since the Charleston, South Carolina shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, at which Reverend Clementa Pinckney and eight of his parishioners (Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons Sr., Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson), were murdered by a white supremacist vigilante, pressure had mounted on southern states to stop displaying the Confederate battle flag. The massacre was another reminder of the various battles facing black America today. But because the flag was just one emblem, the tendency is to view these events as isolated incidents rather than see them as an indication of the zeitgeist.
President Barack Obama’s soulful eulogy for Reverend Clementa (and singing of “Amazing Grace” at his conclusion) added gravitas and dignity to the senseless tragedy. Supporters of the flag viewed the shooting and the flag as unrelated. But it should be embarrassingly obvious that this flag is more than an historical symbol. It’s an icon of war. Incorrectly described as the Confederate flag, it was first used in northern Virginia battlefields in 1861, and it was never officially adopted as the flag of the Confederate States. On June 22, The New York Times included a blurb to remind the nation’s readers that the eponymous flag was, and is, a battle flag.
The battle flag was exactly that: the flag of an enemy nation that went into relief after the Civil War for decades. In 1962, South Carolina flew the flag over the dome of the State House in observance of the Civil War Centennial. Apparently, the flag wasn’t flown at the South Carolina capitol for generations after the Civil War but during the upheaval of the 1960s, during the tumultuous era of desegregation, the flag was resurrected to renew the sense of embattlement felt by anti-integrationists. But the history of this flag, which has been obscured over the years by the Klan’s appropriation of it, as well as in current conversation about its contemporary meanings, makes it unequivocally clear that the flag was exactly what blacks folks always thought it was: an aggressive symbol of white supremacy.
Thankfully, the debate was put to rest. On Thursday July 9, the final vote in the State House of Representatives was 94 to 20, well above the two-thirds majority required for Governor Nikki R. Haley to sign into law a bill to remove the battle flag from state grounds. Yet even as we’ve won the proverbial battle over the battle flag, we’re losing the war.
It’s not the “war on drugs” or the “war on terrorism,” we are losing as much as it’s the war on Black America. It’s a cold (or lukewarm) war comprised of several moving components. And, it is happening in spite of – or perhaps as partial backlash against – Barak Obama’s presidency. First, there’s the ongoing travesty of mass incarceration, which was bolstered by RDLs or Rockerfeller drug laws (before Eric Holder’s sentencing policy reforms) and by privatization. Hopefully, Obama’s visit to the medium security El Reno Federal Correctional Institution near Oklahoma City – and the ongoing activism of thousands — will bolster the movement against mass incarceration. But the current statistics are devastating. The Economist ran a cover story (“Jailhouse Nation”) on June 20, providing an update on incarceration figures among industrialized nations. Whereas The New York Times reports 2.2 million incarcerated Americans, The Economist and The Brennan Center for Justice estimate the population to be 2.3 million, if we include the array of state and federal prisons, local jails and immigration detention centers. It still holds true, no country in the world imprisons as many people as America does, or for so long. A disproportionate percentage of the incarcerated are black and brown. Its common knowledge the system is particularly punishing towards black people and Hispanics, who are imprisoned at six times and twice the rates of whites respectively.
Second, there’s the ongoing police brutality and white vigilantism against blacks. We are routinely witnessing the senseless killings of unarmed black men, boys and women (i.e., Trayvon Martin, Jordan David, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Dejerria Becton) who then find themselves entangled in the criminal justice system. Third, there are efforts to obstruct (and deter) black voter registration with voter ID laws. Fourth, there’s the burning of, and assault on, black churches.
One cannot help but feel concern that Abigail Fisher’s case against the University of Texas at Austin isn’t also part of the cold war on racial diversity, multicultural learning environments and black racial uplift. Miss Fisher – a white applicant – sued the university for discrimination after being denied admission to the Austin campus in 2008. Its significant Fisher’s case doesn’t take issue with the admission of alumni progeny.
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Fisher’s lawyers asked the Supreme Court to take up her case a second time after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit last year again upheld the Austin campus’s policy. Among dissenting parties, a claim has been made that the university clearly define what it meant in seeking a “critical mass” of minority students. The new appeal will be heard during the court’s 2015 term, which begins in October, with a ruling expected in the summer of 2016. These decisions are weighty because, as Peter Schmidt notes, they have “the potential to reframe how courts and colleges think about campus diversity.”
Abigail Fisher’s outlook and actions shouldn’t surprise us if the Texas State Board of Education is any indication of the kind of schooling young Texans receive. In 2010, the State Board adopted more conservative learning standards and opted to teach American history with a particular ideological inclination. The new books downplay issues like slavery and skirt others like Jim Crow laws, and causes for the Civil War. Yet next month, 5 million students will receive the new state board approved textbooks. This is an example of cold war tactics. It is a crime of omission against (African) American history and an assault the minds of American youth.
Then there’s the recent celebration of the SCOTUS decision in favor of same-sex marriage, which should be a victory for all to celebrate. But it’s a celebration that obscures the rest of what’s happening in America. In light of the erosion of Black American civil liberties; white supremacist assaults on black churches and their parishioners; efforts to undermine black voter registration; challenges to racially-sensitive college admissions policies that ensure access; and a literal re-writing of history, one wonders whether we should be celebrating or if our LGTBQ brethren (white, and of color) should be mourning– and strategizing – with us?
Activist-author Darnell L. Moore summed it up well in his June 26, 2015 article entitled: “I Am Black and Gay, But I Refuse to Be Proud this Weekend.” I tweeted and posted Moore’s article on my Facebook page seconds after reading it because I wanted my friends and family (who were busily posting rainbow selfies and profile photos in the wake of the SCOTUS decision) to think twice about the climate and the cause for celebration.
As a heterosexual woman, I tread lightly in this area. It is probably inappropriate for me to ask how much this decision is going to help black (gay) people or other sexual minorities of color. But I wonder. Fortunately, Mr. Moore, asks the pertinent question about who is served by this when he writes:
“The LGBTQ movement has been likened to the black civil rights movement of our past, with “gay” even being called the “new black”…Thus gay liberation has often been fueled by the rhetoric of black liberation. In April, for example, joyful proponents of same-sex marriage gathered outside of the nation’s highest court singing “We Shall Overcome.” But I wonder, who is the “we” they imagine?” 
Throughout his brief commentary, Moore references a critique that has been issued by progressive folk of various backgrounds. Activists, scholars and academics have questioned the simplistic paralleling of racial identity with sexuality for years. The cracks in the rhetoric have always been there – as has the critical resistance.
The troubling irony is not that folks want to celebrate a moment uniquely invested in gay liberation (when black and brown people are dying), as Moore asserts. The problem is that many other marginalized Americans (and white folks) have utilized this bridge (called our backs) to achieve the very civil rights and liberties all Americans should enjoy without lending the same efforts, energy or passion to African American struggles.
Perhaps I’m just particularly sensitive to white appropriation of black disenfranchisement, black culture, and black radical discourse in the wake of Rachel Dolezal’s Afro-Saxon masquerade. She reminded me of how easily (and often) white folks have, can, and do appropriate discourses closely associated with blackness to enhance their own cultural or social capital. After all, Dolezal got academic appointments on the basis of her knowledge, affinity and proximity to African American Studies. If she faked other aspects of her identity, did she fake her credentials too? Moreover, Dolezal’s not the first white person to claim an “awareness and connection with the black experience,” as a way of making allowances. Many folks have made such claims (be they friends, schoolmates, colleagues or neighbors). These statements remind me of Greg Tate’s aptly titled anthology: Everything But the Burden: What White People are Taking from Black Culture (2003).
My hope for the future is that those who are celebrating SCOTUS on gay marriage or college acceptance rates for white women (who statistically have been the primary beneficiaries of Affirmative Action) will reciprocate by one-day turning their full energy and attention to another battle: the problem of the color line.
 “Divisive Symbolism of a Southern Flag” The New York Times, June 22, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/06/22/us/Divisive-Symbolism-of-a-Southern-Flag.html
In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act.
 “American Prisons: The Right Choices,” The Economist, June 20, 2015. See also, “Criminal justice and mass incarceration:The moral failures of America’s prison-industrial complex,” The Economist, July 20, 2015. http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2015/07/criminal-justice-and-mass-incarceration
 Peter Schmidt, “What to Expect as Supreme Court Revisits Race in Admissions,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. LXI., No. 40, July 10, 2015,
 Darnell L. Moore, “I Am Black and Gay, But I Refuse to Be Proud This Weekend.” Identities.Michttp://mic.com/articles/121420/Civil-Rights-Marriage-Equality, June 26, 2015.
Mia Mask is Associate Professor of Film at Vassar College. She teaches African American cinema, documentary history, feminist film theory, African national cinemas, and genre courses. She is the author of Divas on Screen: Black Women in American Film. She edited Contemporary Black American Cinema. In 2014 she published Poitier Revisited: Reconsidering a Black Icon in the Obama Age.