It’s Not About the Confederate Flag, It’s About What the Flag Means

2015-06-25T001639Z_1959716012_GF10000138420_RTRMADP_3_USA-DAILYLIFE
A large Confederate battle flag flies above highway 75 in Tampa Bay, Florida June 24, 2015. Carlo Allegri/Reuters

A hundred fifty years after the end of the Civil War, the Confederacy is on the run.

Statues of Jefferson Davis are under fire in Kentucky, so is the flag at Veterans Memorial Park in Wichita. Parents want to replace the Vestavia Hills Rebel Mascot near Birmingham. Tennessee may take down the bust of confederate general and KKK leader Nathan Bedford Forrest. It’s as if the end of the Civil War was front-and-center all over again.

The Confederate battle flag is most at risk. The flag was designed after the outbreak of the war by William Porcher Miles, the mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, who aggressively supported slavery. The significance was clear: this means war.

That war began in Miles own state when South Carolina seceded over the president’s opposition to slavery. Then 620,000 Americans died in the four bloodiest years of U.S. history. The Confederacy lost, but its battle flag endured—as a symbol for the KKK, white supremacists, Dixiecrat opponents of civil rights like the late South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond, and people buying in to the effort to rebrand it as a symbol of southern pride and Confederate ancestry.

The latest battle under the battle flag also began in South Carolina when Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, allegedly killed nine people during Bible study at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Even as politicians in the state opened the door to removing the flag from the Capitol in response, it survived long enough to fly nearby as the body of the church's pastor and a state senator, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, lay in public view in the South Carolina State House.

The significance of flying this flag or displaying other Confederate symbolism is not about the Civil War. It’s about how blacks and whites feel about each other today, whether respect has triumphed over racism, whether modern evils like racial profiling, inequality or segregation should remain in our lives.

This flag could wave wherever it wants, if the feeling in the air was about unity. It wouldn’t matter. We wouldn’t care. But there is much to care about because our country is raw with racial tensions and inequities. Because the wealth gap between blacks and whites is rising. Because black males are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than whites. Because, according to the Pew Research Center, 70% of blacks believe they are treated less fairly by police than whites, 68% by the courts, 54% at work, 51% in school, 44 % in stores and restaurants.

Yes, our children have equal access to public education and laws bar workplace discrimination. But it feels sometimes like we can sit at the lunch counter, but can’t really order from the menu.  

There is census data out this week that says ethnic minority children under 5 now outnumber white children. It’s sad we even count our children by the color of their skin. But we do. And those children will go to schools with weaker teachers and classes, a higher likelihood of suspension and a lower likelihood of graduation, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

That’s what we should be talking about. But we are instead talking about that flag, as if it was a vestige of another time and not the symbol of a lingering stain. The Confederacy began its battle 150 years ago in South Carolina. The flag reappeared over its Capitol for the 100th anniversary of the Civil War, and flew until the year 2000 when it succumbed to boycotts and lawsuits.

The flag now flaps on the property of the Statehouse by a monument to the Confederacy, bowed but not broken. At the same time 43% of South Carolina black children live in poverty. Only 14% of black 4th graders read at grade level. The median household income for blacks in South Carolina is just under $30,000. African Americans are 28% of the population of South Carolina but own just 12% of the businesses. More than just the flag’s symbol of racism survives.

Dylann Roof thought so. He understood clearly what that flag means. He bought into the South Carolina schools' romanticism of plantation life that overshadows the horrors unfolding in the slave quarters out back. He saw black people as his ancestors did, as an economic commodity. He chose Charleston, according to his apparent manifesto, “because it is the most historic city in my state and one time had the highest ratio of black to whites in this country.”

Now his clarity has given clarity to people debating the use of the battle flag symbol in Mississippi, Alabama and Kentucky. In Virginia and Maryland it’s the Confederate Flag on the special license tags that may go. Georgia is thinking of scrapping the mini-flag off its plates, even as it preserves the Confederate Flag background. North Carolina's first national flag of the Confederacy is officially raised twice a year to commemorate national holidays. Perhaps no more. Oregon may stop flying the flag daily in a park just outside the Salem state Capitol. Jefferson Davis Park in Washington State may lose its flag.

What started this was the reaction of national retailers who discovered 150 years after the fact that wars have winners and losers and this shameful, bloody war was no different. There was a collective wising up from Kmart to Walmart, from Ebay to Etsy.

It says much about racism in this country that we are still debating whether to take down the flag of the side that lost the war over slavery. Explain to your child, using the facts of history, why this flag should be nothing more than just a museum exhibit. It took 9 lives to convince even Sen. Paul Thurmond, son of legendary racist Strom Thurmond, to ask that the battle flag should come down.

We should be talking about what has been true all along—that the Confederate flag flies in support of a people and an economy that depended on using other humans as chattel in a disgusting practice that needed to be eradicated. The vestiges of slavery, reparations, segregation—all the things that white supremacy begat—have destroyed lives and cultures, divided our country, denied generations deserving of equality from achieving equal footing.

It’s astonishing we are having this debate at all, particularly when the meaning of the Confederate flag couldn't be clearer.  It’s particularly true in South Carolina where the bloodbath of the Civil War began after the state seceded and declared itself hostile to a president opposing slavery, particularly when the young man that started all this was so clear in his apparent manifesto about what that flag means:

“I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet…Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”

He is so right. Someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real word. And, I guess, that has to be us.