What do NASCAR, the U.S. Marine Corps, and the Department of the Navy have in common? The answer is very simple: America is finally realizing the insensitivity of symbols from a bygone era that was characterized by legally sanctioned racist polices, which hindered the upward mobility of minorities in the U.S.
The U.S. Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, and NASCAR have all taken steps to eradicate that symbol of America’s racist past – and yes, I am speaking about the Confederate flag, which in my view conjures up images of plantation agriculture built on the endless toil of African American slaves, as well as white supremacy and secession from the U.S.
The catalyst for this recent policy shift within the realm of these three entities was the tragic death of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, whose death was caused by a white police officer’s excessive use of force while three other officers did nothing, but assisted in this senseless killing. As I watched the protests unfold on national television, and then witnessed the looting and burning of parts of major American cities on television weeks ago, I asked myself whether there would be reform after the smoke clears, or will a similar pattern be repeated that could be likened to the lack of reform in the aftermath of a mass shooting? In other words, after the marches, editorials, columns, roundtable news discussions, and those clinging to the possibility that our lawmakers will attempt to bring reform, will actual change take place that will foster an environment without police brutality and systemic racism?
At the time that I penned this particular column, Sen. Mitch McConnell – whose state of Kentucky was the site of a horrible tragedy involving a no-knock warrant that took the life of EMT Breonna Taylor while the actual suspect was already in police custody – said police reform legislation was in the works. And while the GOP and Democrats' version of police reform do vary somewhat in terms of what is emphasized in the legislation, both parties support a national database of use-of-force incidents. And Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer has talked of “bold and broad-scale change,” as the ongoing issue of the excessive use of force should not involve the cherry-picking of simply one or two items in terms of actual reform.
Beyond what NASCAR, the USMC, and Department of the Navy have done regarding the bans on the display of the Confederate flag, we are also witnessing the dismantling of racist symbols around the world – including monuments to Christopher Columbus, whose European imperialist exploits within the Western Hemisphere in the late 15th century are well-documented. You might remember Columbus as the seafarer who “discovered America,” and during this “discovery,” Columbus ordered natives to be seized, as he thought they would make admirable servants. Forced labor policies enacted by Columbus became standard, whereby natives were enslaved for European profits as thousands of Tainos were shipped from the island of Hispaniola to Spain, and many perished on the voyage.
Perhaps we are indeed witnessing the softening of America, and a long overdue need to eliminate all the symbols of an extremely intolerant past to rebuild our nation out of the ashes of hate and bigotry. And as President Lyndon B. Johnson said in 1965, during the time in which he introduced voting rights legislation in an address to a joint session of Congress, “We shall overcome.”
Brent Been is a Tahlequah educator with an emphasis on civics and history.