John McWhorter Calls California Legislature Out for Choosing Symbolism Over Substance in Fighting Racism


Escape from LA
Escape from L.A.

Bravely, the state government of California is on the verge of banning the sale of Confederate flags… by the state government of California. Both houses of the California legislature voted in favor of the bill by a large margin and Gov. Jerry Brown (D) is expected to sign it. The bill's sponsor claimed the legislation was meant to fight "the ugly hatred of racism."

Political commentator John McWhorter, who has described himself as a "cranky, liberal Democrat," provides the right context to see the bill for what it is, a largely symbolic effort that's not actually "making a real difference in black lives (and deaths)." An excerpt, via The Daily Beast:

If we are really OK with ourselves, we do not require that our environment be perfectly free of any visual evidence historically connectable to ills of the past. Beyond a certain point—and I say we're beyond it—it's time to live in the present and look forward.

And no, not forward in the sense of pretending racism doesn't exist. I mean forward in working on racism-related issues that are susceptible to constructive address—which flag-banning is not—and making a real difference in black lives (and deaths).

When we talk about "fending off" racism, we need to fend off the kind of thing that happened to people like Michael Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, and Ezell Ford all within the past month's time. 

The whole column is worth a read here.

I would add only that the state's move to ban Confederate flags from being sold by the state government doesn't go far enough. Given California's serious fiscal problems, the state shouldn't be in the business of running gift shops at museums in the first place. It's a function that could easily be relegated to the private sector. Renting out museum gift shops would probably create more revenue for the state, and a stable source since it won't be based on the government's ability to run a profitable gift shop.

Also of note to stress the hypocrisy of the California legislature for deciding that in the month police brutality and racism have become a national issue they would tackle the sale of Confederate flags at government stores: In addition to Brown, Crawford, Garner, and Ford, who was killed in Los Angeles, there were at least two other questionable deaths at the hands of police in California in just the few weeks after the Brown shooting: 19-year-old Diana Showman was shot by a cop in San Jose who said he mistook a power drill in her hand for an Uzi, and 36-year old Dante Parker, an employed, married, father of two died in police custody after being Tased.

There's also the beating of a woman by an officer of the California Highway Patrol earlier this summer. He is not on patrol duty but continues to collect a paycheck after being caught on tape wailing on a woman. And last week a sheriff's deputy in Kern County, California, received probation and 480 hours of community service for killing two pedestrians while driving his patrol car in excess of 85 miles an hour and striking and killing two pedestrians. His negligence will cost taxpayers more than $8 million but California's civil service laws make it almost impossible to fire him for the action. The inability of police departments to appropriately discipline and dismiss problem cops makes it virtually impossible to effectively combat police racism. Given the power armed government agents have to use violence against residents, which they tend to use disproportionately against black ones, California's legislators need to focus on civil service reforms that will make it possible to "fend off the ugly hatred of racism" where it's at its most lethal, in police forces around California and the country.