An attempt to discourage harm was turned into an attack on the Constitution

To the Editor:

I attended the Rensselaerville Town Council meeting on Thursday evening, Oct. 8, where the council heard from a number of residents concerned with whether or not to criticize the public display of the Confederate battle flag in the town.

While I would like to have seen the council take a more robust stand in opposition to racism, I was very pleased to see that many residents chose to commit the time and effort necessary to make their positions on this highly topical issue known. Very roughly speaking, there seemed to be an equal number of speakers on both “sides” of the question.

Of equal interest to me, however, was a heated debate on social media in the week or so before the meeting when close to 300 comments on the issue were exchanged. I learned a lot about what keeps people from coming to terms with the systemic racism that pervades our society yet appears invisible to so many. Some observations:

— Virtually all of the comments opposing condemnation of the flag focused on the right to free speech. There was simply an inability (or unwillingness) to acknowledge that no one advocated a ban or that there was any difference between a prohibition of the flag and a statement criticizing its meaning. An attempt to discourage harm was turned into an attack on the Constitution;

— There was a strong focus on intent rather than effect. That is, if someone is simply saying they are a rebellious sort or they view the flag as some sort of heritage then the fact that others see it as belittling them because of the color of their skin, even to the point of trauma, is irrelevant;

— There was little interest in the history of the flag or of the Confederacy and the impossibility of separating them from the desire to continue slavery and the oppression of African Americans after the war. There was no willingness to acknowledge the flag as a hate symbol despite its use by white supremacists or the fact that multiple organizations that track such things characterize it as such;

— Too few people seem to realize that you don’t have to be a “bad person and intentional racist” to do things that have a racist impact or perpetuate racism; and

— There was no hint of interest in questioning long-held ideas to see if there might be validity to a different perspective.

In short, there is much work to be done, but I take comfort in the knowledge that there are many of us who showed up to undertake that work.

John Arrighi


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