Why Do We Still Care About the Confederate Flag?
By Hanna Kozlowska
November 3, 2014
In the run-up to the midterm elections, with deep divides between conservatives and liberals, observers say political debates are losing substance. It’s an increasingly “us-versus-them” kind of scene, the “Divided States of America,” as NBC’s Mark Murray put it in a recent article.
The divide is increasingly geographical. Nate Cohn points out at The Upshot at The New York Times that “a record 41 percent of Republican voters in 2012 hailed from the South,” electing a House of Representatives where the Southerners make up the majority of the Republican Caucus. In this election, Francis Wilkinson says at Bloomberg, it is likely that every Senate seat outside of Florida could fall into Republican hands. “More white Southern conservatives in the ranks is precisely what the Republican Party doesn’t need as it stumbles into the 21st century in a panic over changing demography,” says Mr. Wilkinson.
This division also has a symbol that has bisected the country for a long time.
Nearly 150 years after the Civil War ended, the Confederate flag is still one of the nation’s most divisive emblems. Many a Yankee will attest to the shock and horror they feel upon seeing the multitude of Confederate flags when they first arrive in the South. For them, it’s a symbol of slavery, of oppression and systemic racism. But many Southerners see it as a point of local pride and a celebration of their heritage, putting the flag on their bumper stickers and on their lawns.
But when that lawn belongs to a government institution, the flag becomes a political problem.
South Carolina’s Republican Gov. Nikki Haley recently got herself into hot water when she defended the flag standing on the grounds of the South Carolina State House. While she acknowledged that it was a sensitive issue, she also underlined that over the course of her term and many phone conversations with chief executives, she did not have “one conversation with a single C.E.O. about the Confederate flag.” She also said that South Carolina’s image problem was “fixed” with her election, as an Indian-American, and with the appointment of an African-American Senator, Tim Scott.
The MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry wrote a letter to Governor Haley, defining herself as a “Southern girl” who grew up surrounded by the Confederate flag. She says that black Americans are, by and large, Southerners, that their history is “deeply intertwined with Southern history,” that their experience includes slavery and Jim Crow but also “church picnics, HBCU football games and jazz music.” As black Southerners, Ms. Harris-Perry writes, “we have a complicated relationship to the ’ol stars and bars. We rarely paint it on our pick-ups but we do not automatically flinch and recoil when we see it.”
But, she says, Ms. Haley is not just a Southerner, she is “a duly elected governor in the United States of America.” Displaying the Confederate flag on state-owned grounds suggests “honor upon an act of treason,” she says. “To remember that we are one nation-indivisible — we fly the flag of our union.”
South Carolina is far from the only state where the flag continues to raise contention. Similar controversies rocked the town of Danville, Va., and the campus of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. Last month Gov. Jerry Brown of California signed legislation that banned state agencies from displaying or selling items branded with the flag.
The bill was introduced by Isadore Hall, a Democrat, after his mother saw a souvenir bearing the Confederate flag in the Sacramento Capitol’s gift shop. After the bill passed almost unanimously in the state legislature, Mr. Hall said that California’s lawmakers stood together “united to fend off the ugly hatred of racism that’s been portrayed and demonstrated through the emblem of the Confederacy.”
The California bill shows that when it comes to the Confederate flag, there is no simple dichotomy between those who are white, Republican and Southern and nonwhite, Democratic and Northern.
Writing for The New York Times, David Brooks says that the increasing political polarization of the country is a reflection of deeper economic divisions. “Most of the recent evidence suggests that polarization is deeply rooted in the economic conditions and personal values of the country,” Mr. Brooks writes. “Washington is not the cause of polarization; America is.”
The journalist Jesse Dukes, who wrote a long piece for the Virginia Quarterly Review earlier this year about Confederate re-enactors and Southern heritage, spoke to NPR about the flag’s broad, newfound symbolism. “I think the flag has transcended Southern identity to become [linked to] a kind of rural impoverished identity, too,” he said, adding that he has seen people display the flag in rural Maine.
In his article, he writes that for some, the flag is “as an expression of distrust in big government, regulation, gun control,” a “graft of the notion of states’ rights onto modern concerns.” For others, “it signifies awareness that rural Southerners are seen as backward, and a defiant assertion of pride in a certain kind of whiteness: ‘I’m a redneck and I’m proud of it.’”
Some white Southerners, of course, Mr. Dukes notes, are aware of the flag’s racist connotations, and “and wish to embrace that same racist message.”
But the re-enactors want to honor their ancestors who fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War. “I think people need to realize it’s a history — not hate — issue. It’s part of history,” Sarah Smith, whose great-great-great grandfather fought was wounded in the war, told Mr. Dukes. She says that for her ancestors, “slavery was not an issue. They didn’t have them.”
This attitude is what Mr. Dukes and Ed Ayers, president of the University of Richmond and a scholar of the Civil War, call “willful innocence.” Mr. Ayers told Mr. Dukes that the re-enactors “might not want the flag to stand for racism, slavery, and segregation, but that it has taken on those meanings and can no longer go back to being just ‘a flag that marked a place in the battle.’”
Some say that the entire debate over the Confederate flag is pointless. Writing several weeks after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., John McWhorter said at The Daily Beast that we should focus our energies elsewhere. “A serious approach to racism in this country will be about black men and the police,” Mr. McWhorter writes.
The discussion is a “futile endeavor” because of the various meanings assigned to the flag and because of the fact that in the absence of the Confederate flag, the racist constituency would just choose a different symbol. And the debate would circle back to where it started.
Mr. McWhorter offers a way out. “Given how urgent things such as the War on Drugs and its effect on black men and the cops are, might we not simply walk on by the damned flag?” he writes, adding that if we are “O.K. with ourselves, we do not require that our environment be perfectly free of any visual evidence historically connectable to ills of the past.”
The other is a solution offered once before, by none other than Kanye West, who decided to take back the flag, wearing it on his clothing and selling it on merchandise. Mr. McWhorter writes: “His statement about the flag — ‘It’s my flag. Now what are you gonna do about it?’ — is my idea of Black Power.”