Inundated by partisan “screaming head” content daily on cable TV and blogs and social networks, we need a refresher on respecting opposing views for a healthy public discourse.
As a college English professor, I’ve been wondering about this as I witness my freshman composition students struggle to explain opposite viewpoints in essays. But after reading about Byron Thomas, a 19-year-old University of South Carolina freshman, I’m encouraged.
Thomas, who is black, hung a Confederate flag in his dorm room window after researching its meaning. Initially there were no complaints, but then university administrators asked him to take it down for violating the school’s anti-racism code. Thankfully, they came to their senses and reneged, realizing they were violating his right to free speech.
The Confederate or Rebel Flag is what Southern states that seceded from the Union fought and lost under during the Civil War against the North. The war was complex, but hinged and swung on slavery, especially as black men joined the Union army, helping to turn the tide toward victory. For many, the defeated Confederate Flag remains a symbol of racism and white supremacy.
In a video blog post, Thomas explained that he understands this history and respects blacks and whites who have fought and died for justice and equality. He believes the flag was co-opted by racists and chooses to see it as a symbol of states’ rights and smaller federal government. Besides, the near extinction of Indians happened under the American Flag, as well as slavery, sexism, legal segregation and the discrimination and racism that remain today. Thomas’ point is that these are shackles of previous generations and he wants his Millennials to have their turn with the banner for a better future. Move forward by changing what old symbols mean.
Of course, this is not a popular position for an African American to take, no matter how well reasoned. And just a glance at some of the negative comments at the CNN blog post about Thomas’ story reveals the intensity of emotion on this issue.
Even Thomas’ parents have challenged him on the matter, to the point that he said he was reluctant to raise the flag again because of their disappointment. As a parent of college students, I understand their concern. But as a Gen-Xer who believes in pushing boundaries, I’m impressed with this young man.
Can and should we change the meaning of symbols? Of course. It often happens with our language over time as words, which are merely symbols of meaning, evolve. “Bad” changes to “good.” “Cool” changes from a description of temperature to a description of one’s popularity. “Nigger” becomes “Nigga.” (Well, I don’t know about that one).
But the point is if we listen to each other, and take time to understand opposing views, we could become better informed in our convictions or perhaps change for good. We might find that we share more in common than not. Symbols and meanings are social constructs. They exist in the mind. If we truly strive for peace and understanding, even evil symbols, such as Swastikas or “stars and bars,” can weaken to worthlessness, especially among those who never suffered under them. The cross was a symbol of pain and condemnation, but Jesus turned it into one of ultimate sacrifice and redemption, right?
Well, the risk of what Thomas proposes is that we forget why the symbol was changed. “Choosing” to see the Confederate flag as non-racist also plays to the agenda of those who, in the name of “honoring Southern heritage,” would delete slavery and black pain from the Civil War narrative. This would be particularly devastating if embraced by young blacks — the generation for whom slaves prayed to God to grant a better future. It is our responsibility to honor our ancestors by “never forgetting” and by achieving dreams that for them were deferred.
Perhaps the younger generation could weaken the Confederate Flag by commercializing it. They could sport “Confed Gear” like how those “X” hats and shirts promoting Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcom X went out of style when white kids began wearing them, too. I could be wrong, but it seems Thomas is on the right track in understanding free speech and using it for the public good. He told CNN the following:
“I learned that my generation of people are applauding me and telling me they want to see things different now. I’ve gotten so many friend requests on Facebook. They are encouraging me. The generation before has mixed views about it, strong views. The generation before won’t let us think for ourselves. They had their chance to think and run things but we need to have our chance. We will have our turn to step up to the plate and get out of this mess that we’re in.
“I respect where they are coming from. I’m not saying that what happened didn’t happen. We don’t want history to repeat itself, but I see where they are coming from. They endured things I might never endure, but why do I still have to feel grounded, that I have to endure it? They weren’t allowed to go to school with white people but I am. I have never been to a school without white people. Why can’t my generation start making our own history? I respect every black person for the civil rights movement. I just want us to move on from all of the hatred that’s still dividing us today. I’m tired of us still being divided.”
Son, you are persuasive and I’m proud of you for having the guts to make this sound, thoughtful argument.
I am the product of the American public school system. There was only one high school option in the city where I was raised; I assimilated to this school where approximately 96 percent of the student population was African American. Like so many others, I had big dreams, so I did the best that I could for the possibility of exploring opportunities outside my small town. Thanks to the love, support, education, and training that I received from teachers, guidance counselors, and administrators in that school, I was able to walk across the graduation stage and shake the hand of former Vice President Dick Cheney as I received my bachelor’s degree from the United States Naval Academy in 2002.
Less than ten years later, I find myself perplexed at the lack of preparation of so many students graduating from the public school system, if they graduate from high school at all. The 2010 Waiting for Superman documentary revealed that there are over 2,000 high school “dropout factories” in the United States. These are failing schools in failing neighborhoods where students do not have the caring guidance counselors, mentors, or teachers that I had while growing up. These kids do not have choices, so their dreams die, and as far as they are concerned, all of their life’s hope dies with them.
My brother attended schools where the cafeteria ran out of salad before his lunch hour, or maybe the leaves on the remaining salad were brown. I have seen first hand the old, worn textbooks with missing pages. I have tutored middle and high school students that were making As and Bs in the public school system, yet could not read, write, or walk you through the steps of a basic algebra problem.
What happens to all of these children? They sometimes end up in prison or on the streets. And many rich and middle-class (or what used to be middle-class) Americans sit idly by as we have victimized these children and forced them to fail for no other reason than being born into the wrong womb in the wrong neighborhood where they attend the worst schools. They are not prepared to embrace the opportunities that are now failing even some of the most educated and hardworking Americans.
It is comfortable to pretend as if this tragedy is not going on because it is not happening in your neighborhood, but I ask this question: “What about the least of those among us?” We are raising an illiterate generation; what does that mean for the church?
It means that young people are not being taught to know God intimately and grow in their relationship with Him. After all, mature Christians frequently point to the Bible for revelations of our faith. We point to the Bible for those who desire to know God. The Bible is a book that consists of various genres of literature: narratives, poetry, similes and metaphors, allegory, and other types of figurative language that are not all accurately interpreted in the same manner.
Instead of confronting this challenge, we set the standards lower. In the same manner that the public school system is passing students through school, American Christians are giving the silent nod in support with sound-bite theology for our young people — give them a devotional, show a video, invent a quick phone app, after all their attention span is not that long (so there are no expectations for them to sit and learn through the oral traditions of old). Our young people need to be educated and they need to know the Bible.
When addressing issues of abstinence, life’s purpose, failing expectations, homosexuality, developing Christian character and the like, Bible literacy is more important than ever for our young people. Here’s the bottom line: it is our responsibility to teach our youth, to come alongside them, and help them see the importance of getting a good education. It is also our responsibility to paint the big picture for them about how a solid academic foundation can lead to God’s greater good for their lives.
I believe that the failing educational system is one of the greatest domestic justice issues of today’s American church. God requires us to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him. We are to care about the same things that He cares about and the last time I checked, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.”
I wonder what would happen in this country if the church rose to lead the charge to provide educational options. What would happen if churches spent money to build and resource more schools to support free Christian education instead of building bigger sanctuaries for themselves? Or what would happen if those same churches with resources bought buses to bring students to their churches and financially support a tutoring ministry for the children who need it?
What would happen if the homeschool moms decided to also homeschool a child who lives across the tracks or across the bridge? If they had the same concern for their neighbor’s children as they do for their own?
What would happen if Christian men made this injustice a priority? Or if housewives, stay-at-home moms, singles and widows, unemployed and part-time workers, and retirees committed their time and resources to tutoring youth in the neighborhoods where the schools are failing? There is more than enough work for all of us to do.
I wonder if the church stood up, would we continue to see a lost generation of children whose lives of struggle are sure to end in poverty, prostitution, jail, unhealthy relationships, or homelessness? I wonder if any of this matters to the church.
A UCLA student’s rant about Asians goes viral, drawing accusations of racism. But, sadly, what she expressed isn’t that different from what a lot of Americans think, even if we’re not posting it on YouTube.
Recently in Utah, state Senator Chris Buttars (R-West Jordan) proposed a way to save his state up to $102 million dollars — make the 12th grade optional. With a budget deficit of $700 million, Utah lawmakers must be scratching their heads over whether or not to embrace untraditional means to alleviate their budgetary distress — especially when school districts in places like Kansas City, Missouri, are being forced to use draconian measures to stay afloat financially.
Senator Buttars, who has since backtracked a bit on the proposal, believes that a lot of seniors slack off in their final year of high school and just “play around.” This ends up costing school districts money that perhaps may be allotted to extracurricular activities which some may deem unnecessary. So he favors a system of “accelerated graduation” that would get some students out of the system sooner. Opponents of the proposal argue that senior year is still necessary because it helps to mature the students, providing another year to excel academically, athletically, and creatively.