Confederate flags, modern slavery & American tokenism

So, public outrage forced the South Carolina legislature to take down the Confederate flag. Yippee. Americans should be so proud of ourselves for such a great accomplishment.

OK. I’m being ironic. The truth is: We didn’t do anything. Not yet, at least.

Racism still exists in the United States. And while getting South Carolina to take down a flag that symbolizes white superiority to some (though not to all — symbols are complex and often have more than one meaning) brings a feeling of accomplishment, taking it down achieved nothing in healing broken race relations.

These are cheap good feelings.

People got to feel good about themselves by denouncing Confederate flags on social media while not doing anything to deal with racial tensions in their own lives. No making friends with neighbors of different ethnicities. No shopping in different parts of town. No self-reflection about how we might be participating in maintaining racial divides by the way we engage in social, economic, and political systems. Just good, cheap happiness at no personal cost.

And if the Confederate flag is a symbol of slavery, then why doesn’t lowering it raise in us a righteous indignation at continuing slaveries in the world today? International Justice Mission (IJM) and Amnesty International, among other justice organizations, have experienced no up-ticks in membership and donations as a result of the Confederate flag hubbub.

And the reality is that modern slavery far outstrips the slavery the United States participated in during that terrible era in our history. What we did back then and the way black Americans have been treated since is shameful. But what’s shameful as well is that we are doing little about modern slaveries.

There are an estimated 29.8 million slaves in the world right now. Of those, 60,000 are right here in the United States. Globally, one out of four are sex slaves and the rest are labor slaves. See and State Department for more info.

In the United States, most of our slaveries tend toward sex. And of those who are economic slaves, some are slaves in traditional forms of slavery while others are in systems that are not literal enslavements but are basically the same. I point you to IJM’s excellent work in freeing modern slaves if this so moves you.

But taking down a flag hasn’t moved us much, has it?

You see, what’s going on is yet another example of American tokenism. We love doing little symbolic gestures that make us feel good about ourselves and yet require nothing substantial from us.

We need more than just a few social media posts to make real change in the real world. Those posts can be helpful. But they aren’t the real thing. Real action. Real sacrifice. Real relationships. Real giving. These are what are necessary to deal with real injustices.