Three Lessons From Last Weekend’s Confederate Flag Rallies

During the weekend, cities across the US, including in Arkansas, Florida, Arizona and South Carolina, held rallies in support of the Confederate flag, the polarizing symbol that has become a centerpiece in the national debate after the Charleston massacre.

In Dallas and other areas, the fourth of July weekend demonstrations got heated, with Confederate flag supporters getting heavy criticism for their actions. Such rallies seem like a relic of times past, when lines like Southern heritage weren’t called out for the anti-Black prejudice they are. Today, it seems like the Confederate flag is headed for history’s dumpster, but clingers to the bigotry it embodies won’t let it go without a fight.

It is almost too easy to criticize the Confederate flag, correct though that may be. The Atlantic and many others have pointed out how the Confederacy was inextricably tied to slavery, defending it as well as expanding it through the continent. The flag as a symbol came back in the early 1960s, as the Civil Rights Movement ascended and clearly has but one relationship to today’s politics: a statement against diversity, inclusivity and fairness. There isn’t even a debate here. The Confederate flag is a deplorable symbol whose time is long gone, if even there was such a time.

In particular, there are three important takeaways from this weekend’s Confederate flag madness:

1: The Impact of Institutional White Privilege and Racism Must Be Acknowledged.

Confederate flag-waving protesters may individually be objects of derision, but the attitudes they represent are far more common than you think. The Washington Post’s recent study indicated millennials were just as racist and anti-Black as baby boomers and generation xers. A spate of nooses and other racist symbols on college campuses has prompted dialog about today’s students, and how they may simply be indicative of a bigger issue. Moreover, most whites today don’t consider the Charleston murders to be terrorism.

In a highly neoliberal society, social problems become reflections of individual choice, failure or success. Conversations about gender, race and class are quite often derailed by retorts over the choices people make, or didn’t make, that could represent even an illogical argument against power dynamics that affect millions of people. It is this troubling impulse which justifies young African Americans’ pasts as a rationale for police murdering them. What’s more, it’s not an argument people are conditioned to ponder when banks fail, industry exploits people of color and women’s perceptions of themselves are limited by those with the resources to craft the message.

2: The United States’ Debt to African-Americans Needs Appraisal.

The United States has long struggled with race, even after President Obama’s election. It’s in no small measure a function of the highly individualized nature in which so many white Americans want to see race that the country’s debt to African-Americans gets obscured. It goes beyond individual opinions about slavery or what the Confederate flag represents. From institutional education and housing discrimination to nearly a century of Jim Crow laws, African Americans were long disenfranchised but never made whole for losses, a basic principle that has lived in law as long as most can even remember.

Ta-Nehisi Coates framed the issue best:

Having been enslaved for 250 years, black people were not left to their own devices. They were terrorized. In the Deep South, a second slavery ruled. In the North, legislatures, mayors, civic associations, banks, and citizens all colluded to pin black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged, and undereducated. Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages. Police brutalized them in the streets. And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society. Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, “Never again.” But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.

Rather than avoid the dialog any further, these loud expressions of racism cropping up around the nation must be our call to create a necessary interaction. Such an interaction cannot be about what individual persons get from individual persons, but rather what the country must do to repair a matter that breaks the soul of this country, because until a larger justice for African Americans is addressed, petty expressions of a far more violent past, and worse, will simply continue.

3: The Country’s Future Is at Stake.

After hundreds of thousands of people were killed fighting the Civil War, one would think the matter of republic vs. confederacy were over. Look no further than gender-based discrimination, racial inequity and a host of problems to see how the mantra of state’s rights never went away.

Distrust in the federal government has a long history. Yet the idea that such an entity, on the whole, works in our collective interests has ample precedent. Although seeing the Confederate flag on the national hit list is a step forward, racism and the view of some that bias is an individual and state’s right has not gone away. Confederate flag rallies are the last gasp of a particular sort of bigotry, yet more pernicious sorts of prejudice pose new challenges to democracy.