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I Have a Problem With the Confederate Flag, but not Because It’s Racist

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October 26, 2015

Fewer than 7,000 people live in Lynchburg, Tennessee, if you count the residents of the entirety of Moore County. Most of them find employment at the Jack Daniel Distillery just off Main Street, which is where over a dozen old-timey shops sell whiskey-soaked fudge, moon pies and cowboy apparel. One such shop caught my eye the last time I was there: a store specializing in confederate flag merchandise.

I have no way of verifying its existence now, as I could not find a listing on yelp or on the Lynchburg tourism website, but it existed at least a few years ago. I’d been there. Inside, you could purchase just about anything under the sun styled with the flag. Everything from mint tins to belt buckles to Fuzzy Dice and a license plate for your General Lee. It was, at the time, not a strange phenomenon to me. I was white, and from the South. That’s just a part of history, right?

Today, I’ve seen protests over that same flag all the time. Just this week, a politician in Tennessee tried to fly the flag over a Greene County courthouse, only to be unanimously denied the chance. The debacle in South Carolina only a few months ago stands as a testament to the inflammatory nature of the debate. And as a Southerner, and as a history student, and as an activist, I have an announcement to make:

I have a problem with the confederate flag. But not because it is racist.

Let me explain. A flag, by itself, has no meaning. The flag of Libya until 2011 was little more than a green canvas with no emblem or design. But green is a symbol of both the nation and Islam, so the flag, through its context, is given meaning. The Confederate flag is a piece of cloth, like any of the 193 pieces of cloth flying outside the United Nations building in New York.

It is the context of the flag that determines its meaning. This flag’s controversial context ensure that it can rarely be found at U.S. historic sites, though the “Bonnie Blue” is almost always for sale. Why? Let’s look at the history of the Confederate Flag.

It is worth noting that this flag that remains so controversial was not the “Stars and Bars” national flag, of the CSA, but rather one particular army’s battle flags. Specifically, it was a square flag adopted by the Army of Northern Virginia in December of 1861. It was designed as a potential national flag by William Miles, a confederate colonel and statesman who chaired a committee on the CSA flag and seal, only to be rejected in favor of a flag that now looks suspiciously like the Georgia state flag (the battle flag, too, is actually on Mississippi’s flag). The blue cross on the flag is diagonal, that it might not be offensive to certain Judeo-Christian sects across the South. Each star on the flag represents a state in the CSA, save for the 13th star, which was meant to represent Union-occupied Kentucky. It was very popular at rallies, and was instantly recognizable as the trumpet call for Robert E. Lee, arguably one of the most effective generals in American history. After the war, rebel sentiment refused to die out, and demand for the flag surged.

But all this information can literally be found on Wikipedia. For a more detailed analysis, go read “The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem” by John Coski. I am not here for a history lesson alone.

The Confederate Flag means many things to many people. To some, it’s a symbol of southern heritage. To others, a symbol of blatant racism. The problem with these analyses is that those two concepts are hopelessly entertwined: the American South’s history is a troubled one — a society built entirely on a brutal racial hierarchy. Along with the Nazi flag, it has been adopted by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacy groups, in part because both the CSA flag and the German flag represent societies that hoped to create a whites-only Utopia at the expense of “lesser” people. More than that, it can be found emblazoned on truck beds and motorcycles in every corner of the country. It has, in some ways, come to international acclaim as the result of things like muscle car culture and other failed rebellions co-opting it for themselves. But to understand the confederate flag means admitting it represents a society in which prejudice is an integral part of life, and racism is not just an institutional reality, but a cultural goal.

But here’s my caveat: to call the Confederate flag racist is hypocritical. Not because it isn’t — there have been enough anti-integration rallies flying it as it is — but because the same arguments could also apply to the American flag.

After all, the people who sterilized prisoners less than ten years ago in California weren’t singing songs of Dixie or even the Bear Flag Republic — it’s just a recent trend in a long history of racist and ableist eugenics policies. It wasn’t the CSA who ran Native Americans onto reservations. To the contrary, most tribes either split into civil war or allied with the Confederacy because the Federal Government had so long oppressed and destroyed their culture (not to mention so many of those tribal governments owned slaves themselves). When Georgia governor Lester Maddox refused to fly the flag at half-staff for the assassination of MLK, Jr., it was Old Glory that flew defiantly at the orders of the Feds, not the Southern Cross. Sure, to many the American flag is a symbol of patriotism, of identity and of power. But many Southerners see the Confederate flag that way too. And if we put both flags to the same standard of historical analysis, then the American flag should, by all counts, be counted the more destructive symbol.

American society has persecuted all kinds of people, from Black people, to Natives, to the Jewish, to Catholics, to women, to the LGBTQ+ community, to Asians, to just about anyone who could be labeled an “other” at some point in time. We flew the American flag during the Cold War when we invaded countries whose biggest crime was that they were not doing what we wanted them to. We’ve been flying the spirit of that flag since the Treaty of Tordesillas, even when we flew it as the Union Jack or the French Tricolour. Attacking the Confederate flag as a symbol may make people feel better, in the same way Germany outlawed its own racist flag, but it does not address the broken society racial stratification has built, nor does it add to real national discussion around the disenfranchised and marginalized. The Confederate States of America lasted for five years, maybe longer in the hearts of some. But you could just as easily argue the American flag represents over 600 years of European-American conquest, bondage and painful history, if that’s the context you want to read it in.

And schoolchildren pledge allegiance to it every morning. So is that flag racist too?

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