As Mississippians across the state have proclaimed “Black Lives Matter” as a rallying cry to end systemic racism and police brutality, all eyes have looked to the Confederate flag that flies over the state.
While the change of the state flag is necessary, the shift of focus from repairing the criminal justice system and addressing systemic racism to changing the flag raises alarms. We suspect that some legislators see changing the state flag as an appeasement to the demand for change
In order to discuss the flag, we must ask: “What do we want Mississippi to be?”
In 2016, the National Center for Children in Poverty noted that 49 percent of Black children in Mississippi live in poverty. Last year, the Clarion-Ledger found that Black Mississippians are twice as likely to be denied home loans as whites. The CDC revealed that Black women are at least three times as likely to die from complications in childbirth as white women. The Center for Social Inclusion found that school districts with higher proportions of Black children also have higher numbers of non-certified teachers. Added to these disparities, many in the state legislature are determined to limit Black and poor Mississippians’ voting rights.
In the past five years, our state government could have fully funded public education, expanded Medicaid to provide health insurance to 300,000 uninsured Mississippians, addressed the failures in the correctional system, and protected immigrants with long-standing ties to Mississippi communities. They could have changed the flag in the wake of the Mother Emanuel massacre in Charleston and again after the white supremacist rally and murder of an anti-racist protestor in Charlottesville, but the legislature failed to pass any substantive legislation to address systemic issues.
While the legislature obfuscates, many white progressives have saturated social media with the “Stennis flag.” But for many younger Black Mississippians, the quick anointing of a flag to provide a redemption story for a racist politician and his family demonstrates that the process has been co-opted by whites. They mean to signal their “wokeness,” but engage in performative actions to avoid the hard work of changing inequitable policies and power dynamics. The Stennis flag is just another manifestation of white guilt. (Editor’s note: The flag’s designer, Laurin Stennis, posted a statement to social media acknowledging the painful associations of her family name and withdrawing from direct advocacy of the design.)
Author Kiese Laymon argues that: “The new flag of Mississippi has to have Black radical creativity at its center or it replicates failures of the past. And if the new flag refuses to have Black radical creativity at its center, who is it really benefiting?”
The state flag and the systemic racism it represents have done more harm to the Black community than any other. And yet their voices and concerns are constantly ignored in decisions about the focus of anti-racist work, much less in determining a new flag. The process of decision-making on all of these vital issues is as important as the outcomes and must reflect anti-racist values. Laymon added, “…this is not the time for another white centered, white reformed symbol.”
If the replacement flag still harms Black Mississippians, then we will have failed. If we change the flag and 49 percent of Black children still live in poverty in Mississippi, we will have failed. If we don’t fully fund education, demilitarize the police, expand Medicaid and implement other policies of repair, then we will have failed. If decisions about what Mississippi will be do not include and center those most targeted by oppressive systems, we will have failed.
We cannot let past obstacles to change render us so timid that we reduce our demands. We do not have to settle. We can insist that the flag change AND demand systemic change. We must.
For now, leave the flagpoles bare. Let’s work to create the Mississippi of our dreams, where all children thrive. Let Mississippi earn a new flag that reflects an inclusive and just state. If the state continues to be inequitable, anything we fly will be hypocritical.
Leah Davis is a recent graduate of the University of Mississippi, and is passionate about work and community engagement regarding racial reconciliation and repair.
Susan M. Glisson was the founding executive director of the Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation and is the co-founder and partner of Sustainable Equity, a healing and social justice consulting firm.