#TakeItDown: Why White Folks' Defense of the Confederate Flag is Bullsh*t

by Dee Rene Growing up Black and Southern is a life of subtle racism, one that you learn to chok...

by Dee Rene

Growing up Black and Southern is a life of subtle racism, one that you learn to choke down in between sips of your sweet tea. The Confederate flag looms at the entrances of roads where no people of color have lived for as long as anyone can remember. It’s worn as a headband by the waitress who drops your plate off with a bit of annoyance, but provides exceptional service to the blonde hair, blue-eyed patron next to you. It waves proudly above state capitol buildings, where laws are passed that seem to choke the life and resources out of our communities.

The flag waves as a symbol of Southern pride for some, and represents devastating hatred and racism for others. Last week’s racially motivated massacre of nine innocent Black church members, including a state senator, in Charleston, South Carolina—where the Confederate flag waves freely at the state capitol—has brought the flag debate back into the light.

Is it finally time for America to face the truth: the Confederate flag is yet another symbol of a racist system?

To understand the current disputes around the flag, one must also understand its history.

In the 1800s, bitter debates began between the Northern and Southern states, as the Northern government became stronger and started enforcing laws on each state. Many of the states in the North, which would become known at “The Union,” had already banned slavery. The South, later known as the Confederate States after secession, feared the North would impose its slavery ban on the South as well, thus affecting its economy and further diminishing its power. The election of Abraham Lincoln as President, who originally ran on a platform to keep slavery contained to the places where it already existed, was the last straw for Southern states who believed Lincoln would eventually enforce a ban on slavery. (Lincoln would eventually abolish slavery during the Civil War.)

South Carolina had a huge and significant role in this part of history. According to NPR:

In December 1860, South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union just months after Abraham Lincoln, from the anti-slavery Republican Party, was elected president. In April 1861, the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, S.C. … The ‘Stars and Bars’ flag, currently the subject of controversy, was actually the battle flag of Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.
Overall, it’s clear in a state like South Carolina—literally the tipping point and catalyst for war—the Confederate flag has deep roots. And since the 1860s, many states within the South have waved the flag above bloody battlefields where soldiers died “protecting their rights” to deny an entire population those same rights.

Is this something to be proud of?

Now here we are in 2015, casually allowing that reminder of America’s racism to fly “majestically” over state capitol buildings below the Mason-Dixon line. An article on the FiveThirtyEight website reviewed a November 2014 Winthrop Poll of adults in South Carolina, stating that while only 33 percent of the general population wanted the flag to come down, 61 percent of the state’s black residents wanted the flag to go.

This is yet another reminder that the thoughts and opinions of Black folks just don’t matter in the name of white Southern pride. Would we expect Jewish survivors of the Holocaust to live and work anywhere with a swastika hanging on the wall? Of course not. Because taking “pride” in a time and institution that was cruel and morally unjust is ridiculous. It isn't just to change the meaning of a symbol, if many associate that symbol with the brutality, pain, and death suffered by their ancestors.

More than just the debate about what the flag symbolizes, this argument taps into a deeper issue: the indifference of whites to Black feelings of injustice. An independent survey done by YouGov also concluded that even among white respondents who identified themselves as Southerners, the majority (64 percent) had neither a positive nor a negative reaction to the Confederate flag. Completely indifferent, meaning they feel the history of the flag has no real impact on them.

The privilege to ignore the flag and what it symbolizes to African-Americans is an act of white privilege. Of course, not everyone who supports the flag is blatantly racist. However, everyone who supports it is exercising an act of privilege. It’s the privilege to ignore the history the flag represents, simply because it doesn’t impact you.

It seems that if it only matters to us, then it doesn’t really matter at all. It took the killing of a pastor and state senator and eight others, while he hosted Bible study, for the outrage around this symbol of racism to be heard on a national level. The consequences of keeping racist symbols alive—no matter how some have tried to change the meaning along the way—are real. As the Confederate flag continues to wave, some will look back on the time the flag represents with nostalgia, using it to reinforce their current racist views and reminisce about how good it was “back then” when the South flourished financially on the backs of Blacks.

Those who support the flag have to realize that this isn’t just about their “pride” any more than the Civil War was about just about protecting states’ rights. It is the ultimate act of privilege to willingly ignore the history, the outcry, and the consequences of defending a symbol of racism and oppression in the U.S.

Photo: Jason Miczek / Reuters / Slate

Dee Rene is a regular contributor to For Harriet.

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