The clearly race-motivated shootings last weekend down in South Carolina were awful things. My heart goes out to the victims, their families and friends, and all the other people affected by this terrible ocurrence. I’ve also been tremendously impressed with the way the people affected have reacted publicly and privately; so much grace, peace, humility, and forgiveness from so many people who would have found a lot of sympathy in reacting otherwise. It’s nice to see the better side of humanity come out of a situation that started with the worst of it.
As people pick up the pieces, the lingering discussion nationwide has been focused on the Confederate Battle Flag* and what flying it, either from your house, truck, or State House symbolizes. In general, people are starting to think that it’s a pretty bad thing to do, or at least gauche, in modern America. , concerned citizens, and southern Republican Governors have all instituded bans, or called for them, depending on their ability to enact such things, in the name of decency, sympathy, or the desire to not appear to offend vast swaths of potential American supporters, voters, or shoppers.
I think this is a positive development – people are finally getting it through their head, through the sheer weight of overwhelming public opinion, in some cases, that the flag is a divisive symbol, representing racism and intolerance, and probably shouldn’t be displayed by public institutions, in the interest of satisfying the modern collective unconscious.
All the same, there will still be folks out there who will make the claim that it’s all about “heritage” or “southern pride”. I live amongst many of these people. Most of them, on balance, are decent, if wearing some pretty heavy blinders to certain issues, and are certainly misinformed about their own heritage they’re so proud of.
Growing up in the north amidst the rural wilds of “Pennsyltucky”, I saw the flag flown pretty regularly amongst “salt of the earth” types, especially once I was wordly enough to really notice that the world didn’t necessarily work the way these folks believed it did in their relatively isolated enclaves. The flag was largely adopted by young and enthusiastic youth adopting the “country” cultural tics, many of whom had never been south of the Mason-Dixon (and likely had never seen more than a handful of people who looked different than they did except on television and through (tightly closed) car windows when passing through an urban area. I’m not saying these were bad people – most would drop everything to help someone in a jam, especially if they felt a connection to them. That said, the casual, theoretical racism, homophobia, and fear of the “other” they picked up from their elders in their sheltered environments continues to be there, even if they don’t rise to the levels of action or violence we see all to often. Their adoption of the flag has nothing to do with “heritage”, but rather with adoption of the values of a group whose distrust of the “other” aligns with their own.
Upon moving to “the south”, I noticed that racism here was a little different; with a much less homogeneous population, people are, for the most part, more careful about what they say in public (or at least in mixed company) – “southern courtesy” doesn’t allow for it, unless one feels safe behind the walls of a sympathetic enclave, or if one finds oneself “in his cups” and finds social barriers perforated chemically. In those cases, what one hears is pretty damned awful to my ears, worse than the northern redneck kids who don’t know any better who are mostly posturing. There are folks where who hold these racist feelings sacred. These folks totally know what they’re doing – the flag’s a dog whistle to them, and they use it like a secret handshake to identify their own.
Those folks are the minority, though, really; a relatively small part of the “confederate flag=heritage” crowd; a lot of folks don’t know any better, largely because of the social filters in place in Southern society. For younger folks who weren’t around during the heyday of segregation/integration and the civil rights movement, the flag has always been there as a symbol of their “heritage”, and mostly, they aren’t aware that the flag itself was largely a relic from 1865 until the late 1950s, when it was revived in the wake of opposition to the civil rights movement. It’s totally a symbol of racism, hate, and intolerance; so much so that in modern Germany, neo-nazi sympathizers use the confederate battle flag because swastikas are specifically prohibited. It’s a failure of (or a calculated feature of, depending on how you look at it) our American educational system that such information doesn’t get out there, and the “heritage, not hate” movement continues; ignorant of history, believing they have a legitimate reason behind their claim of heritage (even if they’re probably a little bit racist as well).
As an aside, let’s examine the “The Confederacy wasn’t about Slavery, it was about States’ Rights” position, which is closely aligned to confederate battle flag waving and the heritage crowd. There’s not much to this position, and Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederate States of America, would agree:
Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.
And if the words of the Vice President arent enough, let’s take a look at the CSA’s Constitution, article IV, Section 3(3):
The Confederate States may acquire new territory; and Congress shall have power to legislate and provide governments for the inhabitants of all territory belonging to the Confederate States, lying without the limits of the several states; and may permit them, at such times, and in such manner as it may by law provide, to form states to be admitted into the Confederacy. In all such territory, the institution of negro slavery as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress, and by the territorial government: and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories, shall have the right to take to such territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the states or territories of the Confederate states.
So yes, the “heritage” of the Confederate States of America is very closely tied into the concept of racism and white supremacy. The battle flag, when used in any context outside of 1861-1865 (and even within that context, really) , is unavoidably steeped in the concepts of racism and opposition to civil rights for minorities. That we’ve started to realize as a nation that this symbol isn’t appropriate in polite company is a positive step; even if it’s only, at this point, a step for certain entities to avoid alienating propsective customers or voters – behavior drives attitude, at least in some cases. There is a lot of progress yet to be made on all kinds of issues of intolerance and -isms in this country, but nonetheless, I’m encouraged by the fact that we seem to be moving at least a little bit in the right direction on this one.
*-Not the “stars and bars”- that’s this, the national flag of the CSA – although I my inner history major cringed visibily when my local NPR newsreader referred to it that way on the airwaves in the former Capital of the Confederacy.