Earlier this week I engaged in a “discussion” (I use that term loosely) with a fellow Georgian on the Facebook. It was in response to the fact that the state of Georgia will now offer license plates with the Confederate flag on them. Naturally, the discussion turned into whether or not the Confederate flag should be considered racist. I’ll admit, the majority of the people that were engaged in this discussion understood the point I will try and make plain in this post. But the fact that this is difficult to understand for some so disturbs me, that I felt the need to write out exactly how and why it is absolutely racist.
For starters, on the subject of the license plates, there’s a quote from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, laying out that “at least they aren’t trying to be racist” (paraphrase). Here’s the full quote:
“For their part, the Georgia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans said it meant no offense. People have a right to commemorate their heritage, and the state would be discriminating if it rejected the group’s application, said spokesman Ray McBerry” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
He is right that it would be discriminatory. But what does it say about someone’s character that they give no fucks about the racially-charged nature of the Confederate battle flag?
The people who like to rock the Confederate flag (in this discussion, in the article, and from what I have experienced in life) cite that intent is what matters, that the people who proudly fly the flag are not intending to be racist; they are just expressing their Southern Pride. And that this makes it okay. I understand that they do not want to be
profiled generalized. Trust me, I feel that. But the act of flying the flag has a profound effect that cannot be reduced to “Southern Pride.” The Confederacy and the South are very tightly connected, and while “the South” should not be necessarily synonymous with “the Confederacy,” the Confederate flag cannot be equated to anything but the Confederacy. The impact matters much more than the intent, so on that note, let’s expound upon what Southern Pride actually is.
Southern Pride, to me, is recognition of history and looking fondly at where one comes from. Here’s where it gets tricky for some people. Southern Pride cannot be separated from slavery. Slavery is a part of Southern history, as much as slavery is a part of Black history. So, to put it simply, one cannot recall Southern history without recalling both the Confederacy and slavery, an awful time in our past that you should look upon with absolute shame, if you do not already. Unlike slavery in many other places in history and the world, American slavery was racialized (all the slaves were black and all the free people were white), and because of that you could tell who was and was not a slave. Easily.
In addition to being a part of the larger social fabric, slavery was also essential to the South’s economic well-being. Meaning, the only reason they were economically powerful and relevant was because of their crops, which were planted, grown, tilled, and harvested all the livelong day…by slave labor. So if you want to talk about intent: the Southern plantation owners’ intent was to grow crops and make money. With slaves. The result was a society built on racism and racial hierarchy. This is why intent doesn’t matter.
Obviously the Confederate flag cannot be discussed without the Civil War, which, some of those who are pro-Confederate flag will assert was “not at all about slavery”. I could go on and on about the many things wrong with that statement, but I will say only two:
1) Yes, the Civil War was definitely about slavery. The future Confederate states seemed to think that if Lincoln was elected that he “would take all of their slaves away” – similarly to some of those same states years later thinking Obama “would take all their guns away” if he was elected. They wanted their lucrative institution not only to continue expanding into new states, but to remain alive where it already was. So they left. They seceded from the Union so they could continue having slave labor. You can argue “economics” if you wish, but that will come back to slavery. Slavery was the South’s economics (see: above).
2) Let’s pretend for a moment that slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War. The South still had slavery. It was there and it was horrible. And once it was no longer legal for people to be enslaved, the Southern states instituted laws, Jim Crow laws, that made being black synonymous with being a second class citizen. There were lynchings, beatings, lots of infringements on blacks’ rights, 4th Amendment and otherwise; and let me tell y’all in case your history is fuzzy: this was not all done by the Ku Klux Klan. They did their share. But it was regular people, government officials, and law enforcement, too. And don’t you dare forget it.
This article from The Atlantic makes a succinct and compelling argument for anyone claiming that the flag was used solely to represent the Civil War:
“However, the flag’s most lasting legacy — and the source of much of the controversy today — can be traced to its use as a symbol of ‘Massive Resistance’ by the Dixiecrats beginning in 1948 and continuing
through the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. During that period, the flag became the standard for those committed to defending classrooms, bus depots, and other public spaces (now battlefields themselves) from black encroachment. In fact, the flag’s use throughout the 20th century covered a time span significantly longer than its presence on Civil War battlefields. Its placement atop southern statehouses like South Carolina ultimately reinforced the flag’s connection to segregation and racism.” (Levin 2012)
In case you are intimidated by block quotes, I’ll summarize: the Confederate flag did not have any widespread use until the states and individuals who opposed desegregation during the Civil Rights Movement brought it back. It was used even longer to promote segregation and racist laws and ideals than it was used to represent the Confederacy. The most recent “heritage” Southerners have in regard to this flag is racist to the core. Think about that.
But of course, there’s the KKK. They have always used it a symbol. They have always been a group about hate and intolerance. All of their (current) memorabilia has the Confederate flag on it. Why would you ever, in real life, want to be associated with the KKK in any way? As my friend Erica noted after I told her about the situation/discussion,
“Okay. If he’s comfortable defending a flag the Ku Klux Klan uses, then there you go. If he wants to ignore history and the fact that the Confederate states did not want to free black folks, there you go. Why not fly the American flag that symbolizes unity?? Why not fly our actual flag? Why you wanna be associated with some close-minded and racist white people if you aren’t one??? If he is okay with all of that, then you can’t help him.” (personal correspondence, Full disclosure: Facebook Chat)
She’s right, you know. If someone doesn’t mind being aligned with the Klan, nothing I say will make any difference.
KKK aside, the last argument that my fellow Georgian tried to make was that the Confederate flag no longer stands for something racist, that it has somehow been appropriated. Let me tell you something. Kanye West attempted to appropriate the flag, to turn something racist into something that black people can “support,” similarly to what has been done with the n-word. Appropriation, by definition, implies that the original symbol itself remains accessible, while the new one is recontextualized. With this definition in mind, it makes me think that Kanye West’s symbol is the appropriation, while the flag being flown by citizens of the old Confederate states remains the original. Essentially, the Antebellum South and the Confederate South were both racist societies. And because the South by and large still has remnants from that, be it the Jim Crow period, or the racial inequality there today, to say the flag has been appropriated and reconceptualized by white Southerners would be inaccurate. What excuse can anyone have that the flag’s most recent history was to combat the Civil Rights Movement? If we were throwing it back to the Civil War and keeping it there, I’d say that an individual flying it today may not have any racist feelings or long for the Confederacy and slaves, but to me, it seems to be a nostalgic relic for a time like Jim Crow, or slavery, when blacks were certifiably the lower class. And obviously it’s use during the Civil Rights Era was meant to send a message.
I will end with a “thank you” to the people on that Facebook thread, most of whom I don’t know, who understand that you can be a proud Southerner and not fly a treasonous flag from a slave society:
Happy Black History Month. Let’s try and be more thoughtful about slavery, racism, and the struggles of blacks thereafter.