WASHINGTON, June 20, 2015 – Let’s be clear up front on two points: The Confederate Battle Flag didn’t cause Dylann Roof to shoot anyone; the Confederate flag is not the cause of racism.
The Confederate flag is, however, a racist symbol.
Swastikas appear in American Indian art; there are fine examples of Navajo weaving from the 1920s in which the swastika figures prominently. The swastika is a sacred symbol to Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. Indeed, the word “swastika” comes from the Sanskrit word “svastika,” which means lucky or auspicious object.
The swastika is, nevertheless, a racist symbol.
A bully used to be a “good fellow.” “Nice” meant ignorant, silly or foolish, and “gay” meant happy. “Promiscuous” meant confused, and “punk” meant prostitute.
But word meanings change, and if you insist on using the word as it was used once upon a time, you aren’t standing up for truth, but for having your own way, and if you call a football lineman’s girlfriend “promiscuous,” you deserve the broken nose that you’ll get for it.
The Confederate flag doesn’t start out with good connotations all around. It was the symbol of rebellion, the flag of men who rejected their oaths to their nation in favor of their states. The principle they fought for might have been the right of states to exercise rights ensured by the Constitution, but the right they wanted to exercise was the right to own men, women and children, to treat them like property, to sell them at will, to whip them, rape them and otherwise abuse them with impunity.
It is the flag of treasonous men who fought for an ignoble institution.
We romanticize the past shamelessly.
Southern gallantry is as much a cliché as Simon Legree and Scarlet O’Hara’s dress made out of curtains. There were indeed virtues in Southern life and culture, and the federal government of the victorious North has grown ever more pervasive and oppressive. But still Southern leaders broke their oaths, and they did it to protect their states’ rights, including the right to hold slaves.
We as individuals don’t get to decide what symbols mean. Were I to become a Hindu and revere the swastika and hang one from my house, the meaning wouldn’t adapt to my desires and beliefs. The meaning is determined in a wider society, and in our society, the swastika is evil.
And the Confederate flag is racist.
A popular internet meme says that the Stars and Bars became popular in the 20th century because of the Ku Klux Klan. The historical validity of that claim is as shallow as any internet meme. Klansmen sometimes wave Confederate flags, but they marched in Washington under the Stars and Stripes. Historical pictures of their rallies feature the Union flag and the Klan’s own cross, not the flag of the Confederacy.
The Confederate flag isn’t racist because of the Klan; Klansmen sometimes wave it because it is racist. It stands for a nation that didn’t consider black men to be men, and all the romantic nostalgia in the world won’t make that go away.
Like the word “gay,” it means what most people believe it means.
If the Confederate flag ever comes to represent love and justice for all men and women, it might someday be flown with pride. And if “whore” comes to mean a strong woman of accomplishment, women might someday embrace the word and proudly call themselves “whore.”
But not today.
It is common for people to say that America is a racist country, and for others to claim that noting the existence of racism is race-baiting. In fact, this is a country that has made huge strides. In my lifetime, we’ve had our first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, our first black secretaries of state (one of them a black woman), our first black U.S. attorneys general, our first elected black senator from a southern state since Reconstruction, and many more firsts. Including president.
Black men and women are increasingly found in the medical professions, the sciences and as leaders of finance and industry.
But for all the progress, there are racial disparities and deeply rooted barriers to black progress, and as long as those exist, the fact that most of us would be happy to invite black friends into our homes doesn’t make the racism go away. It isn’t race-baiting to recognize that fact, nor the fact that police officers—black and white—are more likely to shoot a black man than a white one, and that black men are more likely to end up in the justice system than white men.
The whys are many and complex. They include well-intentioned liberal programs that devastate black families, a history of bad schools, the destruction of values that once instilled in black kids the desire to learn. There are a lot of factors working against black kids and black families, and even if none of us had any personal dislike for black people, the effect would remain racist.
Getting rid of the Confederate flag will fix none of this. It would, however, remove a small and grating irritation, an ugly symbol that demeans some while filling others with pride in their heritage.
Individuals must retain the right to fly the Confederate flag from their homes and businesses as they please; it is a political symbol that we have no business banning. But neither does it deserve the respect granted it by its display on public property. When it comes to the meanings of symbols, the majority rules, often tyrannically. That’s life.
Now get rid of that toxic flag.