Monday, Apr. 19, 2010

Fight over flag too easily misread

By Reid Johnson

Re "The Right Side of History," March 28 editorial:

Your editorial advocating removal of the Confederate Flag from Statehouse grounds framed the choice as a no-brainer; downgrading an outmoded symbol that offends many African-Americans and causes South Carolina needless financial hardships versus honoring the South’s casualties in a 150-year-old losing war and thumbing our state’s officious nose at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and outsiders during desegregation. I concede that your position could be socio-politically and economically expeditious and may well produce beneficial results. But before the Stars and Bars are blithely whisked away, know there is much more symbolism at stake.

To be clear, chattel slavery was an inhuman abomination and its stepchild – institutionalized racial segregation – was wrong in every way. Our area was arguably an archetype for the atrocities of slaveholding, where white, often absentee masters grew rich on the backs, brains, technologies and graves of West Africans skilled in creating rice and indigo plantations out of disease-ridden swamps and marshes. If that’s what the flag symbolized, you’d be right. It isn’t.

What anti-flaggers must understand is that the vast majority of men who fought for the South in the Civil War – white, black and brown – never enslaved anyone. Most white Southerners of that period didn’t own or work on plantations, and led tough agrarian lives more similar to slaves than Southern aristocrats. Yet they died and their families were ruined just the same.

My ancestors were eastern North Carolina sharecroppers and tenant farmers whose ownership of the land they’d worked for generations began during my lifetime. We deeply revere the rebel flag and "Dixie" and other Confederate symbols, but for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with approving of slavery.

My Southern brand of American history taught that the Civil War was fought between the highly industrialized, relatively wealthy North against the predominantly poor, agricultural South over a wide range of serious political and economic issues that had functionally divided the two regions for decades. The abolition of slavery was just a convenient and hypocritical excuse, since Northerners owned slaves, too. I subsequently learned that was a slanted version of Southern history, but so are anti-flag arguments today.

Southern pride in Confederate symbols derives primarily from the Civil War as a classic underdog tale; valiant resistance against overwhelming odds, endless sacrifices vainly trying to stop the hostile invaders ravaging our homelands, not wanting to give up even when we were beaten, and from the anti-white abuses of Southerners during Reconstruction. That’s the real heart of this matter: the unbroken familial histories of braveries and hardships and heartbreaks the flag represents, even in defeat. That’s why your oversimplified denigration of the flag hurts so much.

Do some white racists misuse the Confederate flag to flaunt their baseless prejudices? Yes. But does those extremists’ denigration of our heritage justify such a narrow-minded assault on this symbol and such a punitive boycott by black advocacy groups that hurts all races in our state today? No. Most people like me who were raised as "benevolent paternalistic" racists reformed our attitudes decades ago. Racial harmony wasn’t facilitated by white racists then, and isn’t by black racists now. When it comes to unfair tactics, consciences should be color blind.

Your editorial ultimately cast this controversy as "… an issue of right and wrong." I couldn’t agree more. The NAACP’s protracted attack on the flag just to inflame sociopolitical and economic power – by indiscriminately punishing an innocent majority for the sins of its extremist minority – is just as wrong today as it was 50 or 350 years ago. Racism is still wrong, and reverse racism is still racism. People of good will on both sides should work this out now.