Given the recent controversy surrounding the flying of the Confederate flag following the tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina, the Wheel asked the Barkley Forum to debate the pros and cons of removing the flag from display. The following was written by Barkley Forum members Mollie Fiero and Dillon Hall.
There is no place for the Confederate flag in contemporary American society, except, perhaps, a museum.It’s astounding that the emblem of a racist, failed secession could still be on display by government bodies. Although simply dyed cloth, the Confederate flag carries a deeply embedded significance. Danger stems, however, from those who romanticize the Confederacy in justification of the flag, either ignoring or outright glorifying the embarrassing and brutal memory of slavery in the United States.
Fears of slavery’s abolition drove secession preceding the Civil War, thus making the foundation of the Confederacy one of racist violence and enslavement. Georgia, South Carolina and Mississippi all placed concern over maintaining slavery at the forefront of their declarations of secession. Even after the abolition of slavery and end of the war, the identity of former confederates was still closely linked to white supremacy, leading to calls for the Black Codes during reconstruction and Jim Crow much later.
In mainstream popular culture, the Confederate flag only made resurgence when desegregation became a political issue at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. The segregationist party, called Dixiecrats, toted the Confederate flag alongside their racist agenda starting in 1948.
Those who call on the “heritage” preserved by the flag must consider the gravity of their appeal to a time of absolute domination, assault, disempowerment, and mass death at the hands of slave owners and traders. There is no neutrality to the flag, or to the Confederacy, and any perspective that excludes the sinister realities of what the Confederacy was made for, to maintain slavery, takes a skewed and naïve view of history.
The ramifications of the subjugation of black Americans are still evident today; socially, politically and economically. Wage gaps, drop-out and incarceration rates, healthcare inequities, educational disparities and rates of police brutality all serve as evidence of the structural racism inherent to modern America. Media and popular representation of black Americans can often be drawn to racist stereotypes used to justify the existence of slavery or the general principles of white supremacy. This intensifies the need for an excising of artifacts of the Confederacy, because even without slavery, racist sentiment and realities persist.
More than a historical relic, the flag actively represents and promotes a system of oppression and terroristic violence towards black populations. It acts as a rallying point, a provocative and incendiary nonverbal statement endorsing anti-black violence. The flag is revered by hate groups such as the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) as well as violently racist individuals. The flagpoles of the KKK and government buildings ought not to share such an overlap, and an overt symbol must be deemed inappropriate in a so-called representative democracy.
Those who call on the “heritage” preserved by the flag must consider the gravity of their appeal to a time of absolute domination, assault, disempowerment, and mass death at the hands of slave owners and traders.
As recently as June 17, nine black churchgoers were slain during a Bible study in an act that could only be described as terrorism by a white gunman, Dylan Roof. Pictures have since surfaced of Roof gripping the Confederate flag in one hand in a pistol in another, with a menacing glare. His manifesto may have easily been spoken from the mouth of a white plantation owner in 1810, reading, “Niggers are stupid and violent.” He speaks to the inadequacy of the American flag, clearly favoring a more explicitly segregationist, pro-slavery representation in the form of the Confederate flag.
The flag strikes chords of profound fear, anger, and sadness in the hearts of many who see it. Consider Reverend Clementa Pinckney, state Senator, killed at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. When reporting to the South Carolina capitol, he passed underneath the Confederate flag, which represented a mindset that he should never be free, never have a stake in government or even agency over himself. He lived below that flag, until he was killed under it.
The flag itself is terroristic; it represents a racist, violent past and promises a similar future. It is the physical incarnation of centuries of discrimination, subjugation, and terrorism towards the black population. The only ethical position is to advocate the complete removal of the Confederate flag from any all display in government and public spaces. There is legal precedent, such as in California, for a government ban of its sale and display. Too many have died fighting for Civil Rights, and too much is at stake to accept such a flagrant violation of fundamental principles. The Confederate flag’s presence is more than homage to a secessionary, failed southern aspiration, but is tacitly complicit and an endorsement of the racist legacy of slavery which still has very real social and economic ramifications.
When most people hear “the Confederate Flag should not be taken down,” an old-fashioned, neon sign blinks inside their head, illuminating the common argument against such: “RACISM.”Because of the violent, inherent racism that created and now justifies the Confederate flag, modern citizens commonly mistake removing the Confederate flag as a progressive action. It’s simple: if you get rid of something racist, racism vanishes! Following Dylann Roof’s mass shooting, which was an attempt to reinvigorate a formal race war largely influenced by the Confederacy of the Civil War, the fight against the Confederate flag has largely dominated the media’s coverage of the tragic murder of nine people.
While claims that the Confederate flag serves to justify and promote racism are certainly valid, the elimination of state support for confederate flags in South Carolina, Mississippi and Virginia is undoubtedly not what’s needed right now.
First and foremost is the issue of racism. Even though the Confederate flag is a symbol of slavery and racism, it is very plausible that removing the flag in and of itself reinforces racism. Many members of both the left and the right have presented the removal of state support for the flag as a one-step solution to racism; after the flag has been removed, shootings like the Charleston Church massacre will no longer occur and racist ideologies will dramatically decline. This couldn’t be more untrue.
Even though the Confederate flag is a symbol of racism, it is not the underlying structure that enables racism. The United States was founded upon slave labor and black people are constantly oppressed in a variety of ways outside of one single racist symbol: police brutality, incarceration rates, employment discrimination and much more.
Thus, if you buy the claim that removing state support for the Confederate flag will reduce racism in the United States, broader calls for racial justice will begin to reach less and less ears—many will say that action has been taken to prevent racism when the flag was taken down, and further actions to prevent racism are redundant or unnecessary. Calls that racism is of the past will arise again, and racial violence will continue unabated.
The second issue with removing state support for the Confederate flag is that it concentrates the variety of factors surrounding the Charleston Church massacre into one solely about the flag. Issues of gun control, mental illness, religion and terrorism have all been drastically glossed over when discussing the Roof shooting—even the victims of the shooting are barely talked about. The media, even this debate itself, have all been fixating upon state governments no longer supporting the Confederate flag, rather than the wide variety of other elements to this massacre. The media’s relative silence upon these other issues not only ensures that racist attacks continue to occur, but also leaves many more doors open.
Thirdly is the more conservative justification for maintaining state support for the Confederate flag: the Constitution. Historically, the United States has never outlawed a domestic flag. In fact, the Nazi flag is still legal to wave. The First Amendment protects supporters of the Confederate flag under the claim that it is merely an exercise of the freedom of speech. Before the state no longer supports the Confederate flag, there must be a clear precedent for what flags should be legal and what flags should not. The logic to remove the Confederate flag very likely applies to the American flag as well. Claims such as “it’s a symbol of genocide, racism, etc.” all ignore the very fact that the American flag operates under these very same justifications. After all, the United States was founded upon the extermination of Native Americans and nearly two centuries of black slave labor.
Thus, if you buy the claim that removing state support for the Confederate flag will reduce racism in the United States, broader calls for racial justice will begin to reach less and less ears.
Once the governments no longer support the Confederate flag, will there be support for any flag? Seven states in the south, including Georgia, all have the Confederate flag as a part of their state flag.
In addition, will the United States continue to restrict the right to freedom of speech?
The logistics of legal precedents brings forth the issue that the justifications behind ending state support for the Confederate flag will be applied to a variety of more cases.
South Carolina, Mississippi, and Virginia should NOT eliminate state support for confederate flags. Now is not the time. Now is the time for larger discussions to occur. Discussions that are premised off of structural racism, mental illness, gun control, terrorism, religion, and much more.
Removing the confederate flag now is merely a distraction.