Kelly Hawes, CNHI News Indiana columnist. His column appears in Indiana newspapers.
One step forward, two steps back.
Such would seem to be the state of race relations in America.
Sitting on a peaceful lake in southern Indiana, I spot a Confederate battle flag waving from a boat across the way.
What message is that boater trying to send? What would the explanation be if anyone asked?
The message is more ambiguous, I guess, than the one delivered by the vandal who painted a racial slur on a gate leading to property owned by NBA superstar LeBron James.
“My family is safe,” James told reporters at a news conference last week. “At the end of the day, they’re safe, and that’s the most important. But it just goes to show that racism will always be a part of the world, a part of America. And hate in America, especially for African-Americans, is living every day.”
I ponder all of this in light of the recent removal of four Confederate monuments in the iconic southern city of New Orleans.
The first to come down was the Liberty Place monument, an obelisk tucked on a back street near the French Quarter that commemorated a Reconstruction Era white supremacist attack on the city’s integrated police force. If you were to try to define a monument to racism, that one would seem to fit the bill.
The others were bronze statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Folks came from as far away as Oklahoma to light candles at the base of the monuments and carry Confederate flags, pistols and automatic rifles. Those on the other side of the debate responded with banners saying “Take ‘em down” and even held a barbecue at one of the monuments.
At times, things got out of hand, and police had to intervene.
The idea for removing the monuments came in the wake of the massacre at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. That state had removed the Confederate flag from its state Capitol, and other Southern states began to take a hard look at their own Confederate symbols.
I first entered this discussion in a real way in the late 1990s when my family and I moved to Galveston, Texas. We loved the time we spent on the Texas Gulf Coast, but in some ways, especially early on, we were strangers in a strange land.
An example was my reaction on seeing a monument to those who had lost their lives in World War I. Toward the end of the list of names was a separate heading: Colored.
“It’s a travesty,” I told my boss. “That plaque needs to be corrected. Those black heroes need the same status as all the rest.”
My boss was a patient man.
“You can write that column if you want,” he said, “but you can’t change history. That’s the way it was back then, and that monument reflects it.”
His message was simple: Don’t try to paint over the past. Learn from it.
For his part, LeBron James says he hopes the message on his gate will spark a dialogue about how African-Americans are treated in this country.
“No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is tough, and we got a long way to go,” James said.
Racism is ugly. It’s a cancer on our society. We have got to rise above it.
I look at that flag flying across the lake, and I see it as a symbol of hatred.
Is that the message the boater intended? Does it matter?