Martin Swant / AP

Egalitarianism is on the march

The fall of the Confederate flag is the latest step in a progressive wave of reforms

June 26, 2015 2:00AM ET

Bigotry is suddenly on the run in America.

It is as if a giant dam thrown up to block human progress has begun to spill over the top, the outpouring growing until the dam collapses, a flood of decency, fairness and respect washing the stains of discrimination, exploitation and oppression.

Before June 17, many Americans were already feeling revulsion towards our country’s legacy of white supremacy after seeing numerous cellphone videos of police attacking innocent blacks. Then Dylann Roof massacred nine worshippers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Suddenly and unexpectedly the vile nature of the Confederate battle flag, waved with pride by Roof in several photos released after the shooting, became obvious to so many people that within a week Southern politicians scurried away from that symbol of racist hatred.

This is just the beginning. We will see more positive change in the near future as those who solicit votes through fear and denunciation watch America move toward its founding ideals: that all people are created equal with inalienable rights and that America does best when our government follows the six noble purposes of our Constitution, especially promoting the general welfare.

The repulsive flag

In the Old South the Confederate battle flag flies above state capitals and business, appears on license plates and adorns apparel. Yet less than a week after Roof murdered nine people at a church prayer meeting, Southern politicians are scrambling to get rid of it. A host of retailers — Amazon, Wal-Mart, Sears and K-Mart, Target, EBay and Etsy among them — said they would stop selling the flags while the leading manufacturer, Valley Forge Flag, said it will stop making them.

The Supreme Court played a role, too, deciding June 18 that Texans had no right to license plates embossed with that flag. Hopefully the high court will someday uphold an administrative decision invalidating the racist trademark of the football team in the nation’s capital.

In the South many people, including some of my paternal relatives, talk not of the Civil War, but the War of Northern Aggression. Many assert that the flag is a symbol of “Southern pride,” though it is a pride not shared by those Americans whose ancestors were bought, sold and disposed of by the fewer than 2 percent of Southerners who owned slaves.  

After the Charleston attack politicians who once supported the flag and its “heritage” see it now as a symbol of racists whose attack on U.S. soldiers at Fort Sumter ultimately cost 750,000 American lives. Anyone flying that banner should be treated with all the opprobrium due anyone hoisting the old Soviet hammer and sickle. It is a flag of traitors.

Those who say the flag honors their ancestors should thank the victors for their graciousness in not hanging those ancestors who were political or military officers. That would have been an entirely lawful and appropriate response, but preserving and strengthening the union mattered more than revenge.

People get misled from time to time, but reality ultimately intrudes.

The sudden recognition of the Confederate battle flag as despicable comes after a cluster of videos showed unjustified police attacks on a host of black Americans who had committed no crime. These include the shooting of a man at a gas station in Columbia, South Carolina, as he complied with orders to get his driver's license, an older man hauled from his car and beaten for driving in a white Detroit suburb after dark (and, evidently, police planting drugs in the car to justify their crimes), a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, emptying his gun at an unarmed man running away and a 15-year-old girl in a bikini being manhandled by a cop at a pool party in McKinney, Texas.

These videos have prompted widespread revulsion among Americans. They followed partial recognition that police harassment of black youths sparked the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore.

Bigotry in retreat

The renewed popular disgust with racism is joined by other popular upheavals against bigotry. Recent events closely follow the establishment of marriage rights to same-sex couples. This change from a fringe idea to majority embrace occurred at a speed that surprised both advocates and the dwindling cadre of opponents.

Likewise, support is growing for extending legal residence and even citizenship to the ambitious people who left the violence and poverty of Central America and Mexico to find work in the United States. The detention of immigrant families at internment camps, and the forced repatriation of children who only know America and the English language, should eventually end as more Americans realize the ugly and futile response of our government.

More egalitarian changes are coming. Poll after poll shows large majorities favor expanding Social Security, making health care universal and raising taxes on the richest among us. These transformations on the offing illustrate why in the long run a democracy with broad participation produces better results. People get misled from time to time, but reality ultimately intrudes.

Today there is no rationally denying that our once prosperous country is hobbled not only with racial injustice but with debt, job insecurity, runaway inequality and creaky infrastructure. Today incomes for the bottom 90 percent of earners have fallen to below the inflation-adjusted level of 1967, even as those at the apex of the economy rake in ever more billions and fly in private jets.

People are angry and they are voicing their displeasure on the streets. The official violence required to oppress cannot continue once a majority of Americans demand that it end.

As Gandhi taught, when official violence is used against innocents in stirs something in the human heart that makes us care for the oppressed and revile the oppressors. Eventually, official cruelty must give way to kindness, peace and progress. And eventually comes when facts become undeniable and enough courageous people speak truth to power.

For the shrinking minority of scared and narrow-minded people clinging to their prejudices — encouraged by Fox News, right-wing talk radio and The Wall Street Journal editorial page — the next few years will be tough. For everyone else, as the Confederate battle flags come down, America’s future grows brighter.

David Cay Johnston, an investigative reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize while at The New York Times, teaches business, tax and property law of the ancient world at the Syracuse University College of Law. He is the best-selling author of “Perfectly Legal,” “Free Lunch” and “The Fine Print” and the editor of the new anthology “Divided: The Perils of Our Growing Inequality.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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