We’ve had this discussion before. Over recent years, state and local governments have gradually recognized that flying the Confederate battle flag is offensive and inappropriate. For example, Florida took down that flag in 2001, and even South Carolina took a partial step, removing it from the top of the state capitol building.
But because of the horrific massacre at the Emanuel AME Church, perpetrated by a Confederate flag-waving racist, the issue is back—as well it should be.
The issue is simple, really. Symbols can express political values. The Statue of Liberty stands for freedom and a welcome to immigrants. A balance scale stands for equal justice under law. An olive branch symbolizes peace. What political values do the Confederate flag communicate to Americans?
A recent poll asked, “Do you see the Confederate flag more as a symbol of Southern pride or more as a symbol of racism?” Thirty-one percent said that flag is a symbol of racism. That represents about 100 million Americans who see the Confederate flag as racist.
But, some might argue, more Americans (41 percent) answered the question with “Southern pride.” Shouldn’t we believe that flag’s supporters when they claim an innocent explanation? No. Those who display the Confederate flag are not stupid and neither are we. They know perfectly well that millions of people abhor that flag; they are displaying it, quite intentionally, to provoke.
After all, that was its purpose. The Confederate battle flag was hardly ever displayed from the end of the Civil War until the beginning of the civil rights movement in the 1940s and 1950s. Segregationists and the Ku Klux Klan resurrected that flag—as historians tell us—
as part of a massive resistance campaign against the civil rights movement. It wouldn’t exist in our national popular culture without this moment, when African Americans fought for their equality, and the battle flag was recovered and redeployed as a symbol of opposition to it. What was once a very blatant, full-throated defense of white supremacy has now become this gesture to heritage and history that is presented as though it has nothing to do with the civil rights movement. But it has everything to do with the civil rights movement.
There’s another poll by the Pew Research Center just a few years ago. They asked people, what is your “reaction when you see the Confederate flag displayed—positive, negative or neither?” Only nine percent of Americans answered “positive.” Thirty percent (almost identical to those who say the flag is “racist”) answered “negative,” and the rest said neither or don’t know. So very few feel positively toward display of that flag. Let me suggest the likelihood that means people are fully aware that the flag doesn’t symbolize Southern pride; people are smart enough to know that explanation is a fig leaf to cover up something ugly.
Ironically, it was just a couple of weeks ago when the state of Texas won a case in the Supreme Court by being on the right side of this issue. In Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., Texas sought to keep the Confederate battle flag off of specialty license plates.
The state’s agency for specialty license plates explained why it rejected the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ proposed design:
[B]ecause public comments have shown that many members of the general public find the design offensive, and because such comments are reasonable, the Board finds that a significant portion of the public associate the Confederate flag with organizations advocating expressions of hate directed toward people or groups that is demeaning to those people or groups.
If the state of Texas understands this, why doesn’t the state of South Carolina? And if the Charleston mass murderer understands that the Confederate flag represents his racist cause, why doesn’t everyone? Finally, if you sincerely believed that the flag symbolizes Southern pride but understood (as Texas does) that it is highly offensive to millions of your fellow citizens, wouldn’t you find some alternative way to communicate that pride?
It’s not something I say too often, but—Mitt Romney is right.
Bernie Horn is senior advisor for the Public Leadership Institute.