Since the Charleston shooting, our nation has rightfully been in a reflective mood about the nature of race relations. Although this tragedy was spurred by the bitter racism of one individual, in the context of the past year of related racial tensions it cannot hurt to reevaluate the lingering impact of what is our nation’s greatest and original sin.
Naturally, this has manifested itself through politics. Political activists have sought to renew momentum for longstanding pet projects, such as greater gun control and removing the Confederate flag from public spaces. Granted, the relevance of the Confederate Flag to this tragedy is only tangential at best – the perpetrator of the crime had posed in photographs with the iconic flag in the background. This is a clear attempt to utilize public outrage to be sure, but that is understandable given that for so long, many Americans have remained indifferent to the symbolism of the Confederate Flag.
As somebody from the Northeast who has never lived in the South and does not regularly encounter the rebel flag, I can say I have fallen into this apathetic mentality towards it as well. When I do occasionally come across the Confederate flag, it is generally used as an expression of southern pride, without any intended malice. In everyday life it is more often associated with Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Dukes of Hazzard than the Ku Klux Klan.
I buy that many people do have an innocuous affinity towards it. But this requires selective amnesia of the deeper symbolism and context behind it – from its birth in the Civil War to its hoisting in state capitals during the Civil Rights Movement.
The problem with flying a Confederate flag on public property is that it removes the flag from the realm of personal interpretation and turns it into a matter of public policy. To be honest I am less concerned about Billie Joe Sixpack flying the Stars and Bars in his dorm room, where he can attach his own meaning to it as he pleases. But flying the Confederate flag in the birthplace of the Confederacy is quite another matter, and making vague declarations of Southern pride and heritage cannot outweigh the negative aspects of its historical meaning.
Many within the South realize this. Governors Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Robert Bentley of Alabama have called for its removal from public grounds, so it is only a matter of time before that occurs. My esteemed fellow Hoyas, themselves Southern, have made an eloquent argument against celebrating the flag and the Confederacy as well.
This is not to say that Southerners do not have the right to be proud of any of their history, or should necessarily defer to Northerners like me on what it means to be a Southerner. Conservatives in general, and Southerners in particular, often face the scorn of coastal, urban elites for holding politically incorrect viewpoints.
Many Southerners desire an affirmation of their cultural identities, like anyone else does, and they may rightly bristle at Northern condescension. But then you have the 61% of black South Carolinians who oppose the Confederate flag at the state house. For many of them the symbol inspires fear and exclusion, because it was specifically designed for a society that sought to instill those feelings. The Confederate flag should remind us that the scorn they faced from all corners of American society for hundreds of years was far worse than anything white Northerners or Southerners have faced.
It is natural for people to defend their principles and their identity, but what is the principle being defended here and now? What kind of identity does this speak to? How will rejecting the flag – a state-sponsored glorification of armed rebellion in the name of slavery – negate Southern pride?
Beyond the flag controversy, there is the broader question of Civil War remembrance. The South is riddled with memorials and statues commemorating the Confederate side of that war. Are these all likewise an homage to a racist past? I would not go that far.
In fact, we should encourage remembrance of the dead on both sides of the war. The South has the right to mourn its dead like anyone else, and we cannot escape our own history. And maybe, just maybe, we should not hold every ordinary enlisted Confederate soldier responsible for perpetuating slavery or starting a war to preserve it.
Of course, remembering the dead is one thing – celebrating the totality of their ultimately unjust cause is quite another. I was in Austin, Texas a few short weeks ago – an incredible place, a progressive enclave (if you’re into that), and inescapably Southern still. Touring the beautiful grounds of the Texas Capitol, this was clear by the selection of monuments. The Ten Commandments sculpture did not bother me. The memorials to the Confederate dead did not bother me. But I was struck by the blunt revisionism of one inscription:
FOR STATES RIGHTS
GUARANTEED UNDER THE CONSTITUTION.
THE PEOPLE OF THE SOUTH, ANIMATED BY THE SPIRIT OF 1776, TO PRESERVE THEIR RIGHTS, WITHDREW FROM THE FEDERAL COMPACT IN 1861. THE NORTH RESORTED TO COERCION. THE SOUTH, AGAINST OVERWHELMING NUMBERS AND RESOURCES,
FOUGHT UNTIL EXHAUSTED.
Can we strike a balance between remembering the dead and acknowledging history, while still rejecting our national sins? And for the love of God, can we stop revising the legacy of racism by poisoning laudable concepts such as Southern pride and states’ rights?