Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Charleston shooting has sparked national discussion on racism

A horrific massacre in a South Carolina church has sparked a national discussion on racism and the symbols of the Confederacy. But, as usually happens in America, tragedy provides a new foundation on which to improve ourselves. Utah citizens have also been engaged in this debate.

While the nation was mourning, Utah captured negative media attention as the Orem Owlz baseball team sponsored a "Caucasian Heritage" night. And the Herriman Days parade proudly featured Utah’s black Congresswoman Mia Love, but also an entry by the Utah division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Did our state react appropriately?

Pignanelli: “Each generation wants new symbols, new people, new names.” — Jim Morrison

Utahns expressing disgust with Owlz management must back off. Then they can rest a few days and renew their legitimate attacks with even greater vigor against these clueless individuals who deserve ridicule — especially for their lame apology. The Owlz silly event is not only an offense to people of color, it's an insult to all humanity.

Our good state did not deserve the nasty international backlash this nonsense created. Most Utahns are tolerant and accepting of different faiths, cultures, colors and sexual orientation. For example, long before the events of last week, Dixie State University students and faculty demanded elimination of the Confederate inspired mascot and team name. The Rebel moniker was replaced with “Red Storm.”

The Herriman parade committee deserves a pass as most Utahns did not understand — or care — anything about the “Sons of Confederate Veterans.” The group is committed to “the vindication of the cause for which we fought.” Apparently, they want to reverse 150 years of freedom for all citizens. (That is some grudge!) Hopefully, future public activities in Utah will not be blemished with such misguided longings.

Webb: Certainly, Utah is sensitized to these issues and those two incidents sparked plenty of criticism. I believe we should eliminate symbols that are offensive or can be construed as bigoted, even if no racism or slur is intended. If these symbols are hurtful, we ought to be rid of them.

But eliminating the symbols of racism is easy. It might make us feel good, but it doesn’t solve the underlying problems of poverty, crime and homelessness, and especially the plague of black-on-black violence, pervasive in inner city communities.

Unfortunately, in all this debate over symbols, the real problems are mostly being ignored. Preventing teen pregnancy, keeping families intact, keeping young people in school, solving the problems of structural, generational poverty — those are the hard things.

And I reject the notion that racism is the root cause of those problems. Yes, we have racists. We also have terrorists and murderers. We’re not a racist nation any more than we’re a criminal or terrorist nation. Racists are aberrant. Those who resort to violence are deviant monsters. They are not what America is.

Mitt Romney was one of the first national political leaders to call for the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse. Did this have an impact? Did the Republican presidential contenders react appropriately?

Pignanelli: Romney's anti-flag tweet received loads of media attention because reporters knew he was sending an important signal that prominent mainstream Republicans would not be bullied by Southern right wingers. Other national GOP leaders telegraphed their personal choice, but did not make any demands out of deference to “states rights.” Such dodges were frustrating, but later revealed to be the right choice as South Carolina leaders were making plans for the historic announcement on Monday. Perceived pressure from out-of-state candidates may have derailed this.

Webb: Romney got out in front of this issue and set the right tone. I didn’t see the response of each GOP candidate, but I’m confident that none of them are racist. It doesn’t bother me if they don’t discuss the Confederate flag as long as they propose workable solutions to the underlying problems, including strengthening families and ensuring educational opportunities.

Springing from the Charleston murders is a movement across the country, and in this state, to remove Confederate memorabilia from government and commercial activities. Overreaction or long overdue?

Pignanelli: America is great because we are constantly reinventing and improving ourselves. Confederate symbols are irrelevant in the 21st century. Poignant expressions of forgiveness made by families of the Charleston martyrs represent the new standards of courage and community. The loss of the nine souls unleashed a wonderful transformation in the American psyche.

Webb: The heinous crime in South Carolina was certainly an act of racism. It should motivate us to work harder to eradicate racism, continuing the excellent progress made over the last half century. Removing symbols that are offensive is certainly part of that. But, again, if all we do is remove symbols we haven’t really accomplished much.

I agree with a lot of black conservative politicians and commentators who say inner city crime and poverty is caused a whole lot more by the breakdown of the family and a dysfunctional welfare system than by racism.

It’s worth reading the inspirational story of Ben Carson, whose mother, in very difficult circumstances, used strict discipline, a laser focus on education, and high expectations to lift her children out of poverty and into success. He is now running for president of the United States.