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Emmitt Riley III


The May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man in police custody, set off international protests, community conversations and, perhaps, individual examination of conscience about racial justice in America. We asked members of the DePauw community: Will you share your reflections on George Floyd’s death, the aftermath or any aspect of racial justice?

Emmitt C. Riley III is an assistant professor of Africana studies and director of the Africana Studies Program.

It is a complete understatement to say it was a surprise when Mississippi, my home state, moved to retire its state’s flag, which contains the Confederate battle emblem. I never thought that I would see the day when our political leaders would take such a step. To understand what this moment means for so many Mississippians is almost impossible to capture in words. 

Mississippi has historically represented the heart and soul of resistance to the expansion of civil rights. We’ve rejected the expansion of health care under the Affordable Care Act. We’ve consistently elected embarrassing political figures such as Cindy Hyde-Smith, who joked about public hangings. We’ve underfunded our K-12 public education system. We’ve failed to create an equitable funding formula for our state’s historically black colleges and universities. We’ve failed to invest in technology, innovation and infrastructure. Many of our residential communities are still divided along racial lines. As we celebrate this long-overdue moment, I want to challenge my fellow Mississippians, and all Americans, to use this momentum to turn our fight toward eradicating systemic racism and inequality. Although the disgraceful flag has been retired, the white supremacist ideology that it represented is very much still alive.  

We all know precisely what the confederacy represented and the cause it championed. The state’s flag was a consistent reminder of anti-Blackness and the terror that so many African Americans endured. Symbols are important. They tell stories. They remind us of who we are, where we’ve been and who we are not. A common argument among defenders of the state’s flag is that it is about heritage, not hate. However, let us recall what was written into the articles of secession: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun.” In the same sense that symbols are important to African Americans, the Confederate flag and other relics are essential to some whites’ hope that the South will one day rise again.  

Although I am happy that our political leaders have decided it was time to retire this disgraceful flag, I am reluctant to applaud political leaders in Mississippi who merely did, 20 years into the 21st century, what should have been done a long time ago. In this political moment, it has become politically expedient for white people to engage in performative measures that do not engage in the real work of dismantling systemic inequality. It is my sincere hope that white people are raising their children to reject images such as the Confederate flag. This is what is expected from decent human beings. The difficult work that white people must now do is to disrupt, reform and dismantle systemic inequality wherever it exists in our society.  

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