Battle Flag Battle, Northern Style

Mississippi Life
Joe Rogers

You don’t see a lot of Confederate battle flags where I live on Long Island, N.Y. But the principal of St. Anthony’s High School in South Huntington apparently saw one too many.

The result is a lesson in cultural differences, North and South. And similarities.

The basics are this: a couple of senior boys showed up with the flag at a sporting event for St. Anthony’s, a private Catholic school founded by the Franciscan brothers. Teachers quickly confiscated the flag; the principal, Brother Gary Cregan, suspended the boys for 10 days and sent a letter to parents.

"The use of any symbol, either historic or current, which carries a meaning designed to revive past injustices or to inflame discrimination or racial intolerance, is completely unacceptable and profoundly offensive," he wrote.

Later, two sophomore girls posted on social media a picture of one of them in blackface along with racially inflammatory language, according to a report in Newsday, the Long Island newspaper.

While the two events are described as separate, I suspect the effect was cumulative. Cregan expelled all four students.

"I am trying to clearly indicate St. Anthony’s High School’s disgust with racial intolerance," Cregan told Newsday, "and the message I am trying to really express to everyone is that we’re in America in 2014 and that this is not the way we should be living as American citizens and not the way we should be living as people in America."

The mood at the school was "tense," he said, and cited school safety as a concern.

The flag occurrence has stirred up the kind of debate that Southerners are familiar with. Commenters on Newsday’s website fell on both sides of the issue:

"Confederate Flag is a symbol of State’s rights that unfortunately Brother Cregan exploited to promote his own agenda," one wrote.

Which prompted this incredulous response: "So the students brought the flag to school as a statement promoting states’ rights?"

On and on it went, defense and condemnation, the same back and forth you get every time this subject comes up. It could have happened in Mississippi – and did, pretty much, when The Clarion-Ledger posted a link on Facebook to an article about the dispute.

Whichever side of the issue Mississippians fall on, we can at least agree that the Confederate flag represents a part of our collective history. And, not to get all Faulkner on you, but: The past isn’t past.

And while the flag is no longer welcome at sporting events even at my alma mater Ole Miss, it’s never very far away. Just cast your eyes upon the state flag.

But New York? No. You can go long stretches here without reminders of a war that ended almost 150 years ago. People seem to prefer it that way. Which makes you wonder just what in the world those two boys thought they were doing, what statement they hoped to make, showing up with that flag.

Not, by the way, at a football game. Or baseball, or basketball, or even soccer game. They brought it to a European handball game, which I suspect is not played in D’Lo or Tutwiler. Talk about a cultural mismatch for a Confederate flag.

That aside, a valid question is whether the punishment for all the students was overly harsh. Newsday, in true Northern indignation, editorialized in favor of the expulsions, associating the flag with the Klan, the guy recently charged with killing three people outside a Jewish center in Kansas, and bad things in general.

"We cannot tolerate behavior that communicates so much hatred and intolerance in a school setting without eroding respect and common decency in society," the editorial said.

Then Newsday asked its readers if they agreed that the students should have been expelled. Seventy-two percent said No.

I agree. There’s boneheaded, and then there’s racist. The students at the school might have been a little fuzzy on the distinction. But the adults involved should have been able to figure it out.

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