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If you live in the southern United States, you're probably seeing a ton of stuff about the Confederate flag. A conversation about the prominence of the Confederate flag in the South has been a long time coming. That people cling to it as a symbol so desperately is already problem enough, but that it’s so ubiquitous that even state governments have embraced it is indicative of a larger problem that we need to confront and discuss. And we're finally, FINALLY having those conversations, which is good. This is, somewhat ironically, a “come to Jesus” moment for the South, and one that’s been a long time coming.
My opinion? The flag honestly has no place in society. It’s the symbol of traitors that split away from the United States and established a new government, a cornerstone of which was that black people were inferior to white people and therefore keeping them as slaves should be legal.
One article I read states, “As the battle over civil rights raged in the ensuing decades, Confederate flags continued to fly off of store shelves and then over state capitols. [...] South Carolina hoisted the flag above its capitol in 1961, the same day that Thurmond fought in Congress to maintain federal funding for segregated schools.” So not only was the flag’s initial use racist--a country created prominently for the purpose of perpetuating slavery--its revival was also racist--it was adopted as a political symbol in the south in response to the civil rights movement.
There is no more room for debate in that issue. You can claim the flag means for you whatever you want, you can fly it on your property, mount it in your truck bed, or wear it on a t-shirt, but the fact is the flag has always been used as a racist political symbol FROM ITS CREATION. Pretending it means anything to the contrary is being willfully ignorant at best and being outright deceptive at worst.
That said, and this is somewhat burying the lede I suppose, I want to address something I've seen several people say recently and something that I myself have expressed in the past: the idea that the South is particularly racist.
I want to clarify: the South is not racist.
The United States is racist.
Before you go wiping your brow and thinking the South is off the hook, that doesn't mean the South is absolved of all of its wrong doing. Absolutely not. We have graphic, horrifying deaths that just...aren't matched in severity, frequency, or blood-thirstiness in the North. The South has particularly colorful things we can point to as evidence of our horrible issues with race. But racism doesn't stop at the Mason-Dixon line, nor is it sprinkled sparingly throughout the North. The South’s racism was just more on the surface, more on the nose.
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In the South, we had Jim Crow laws as a reminder that white people did not consider black people equals to whites. And we had complex social rituals that black people were taught early. In the North, it was not necessarily expected that a black person should step off the sidewalk and cross the street to avoid a white person. In the North, a black person didn’t necessarily have to refer to a white person as, “sir” or “ma'am.” In the North, black people didn’t have separate train cars, or water fountains, or entrances to buildings. The North was sneakier than that.
In the North, if a business didn't want black businesses, then they would simply invent reasons to avoid that type of clientele. In The Warmth of Other Suns, Robert Pershing Foster had to drive his 2,000 mile journey from his hometown in Louisiana to the West Coast with almost no stops for rest. At one point in his journey, somewhere in New Mexico I believe, he found a stretch of motels. Each place had their vacancy signs lit, but when he inquired, he was told, “Oh we just sold out.” or “Oh, I forgot to turn the sign off, oops.” Finally, he begged the proprietors of one motel to be straight with him. They confessed that while they didn't share their peers opinions on black people, renting him a room would result in their ostracization, or worse.
Is that better or worse than the “No Blacks Allowed” signs?
Between 1890 and 1968, thousands of towns ACROSS THE NATION worked to create white only communities. The means for doing so included rioting and violently kicking the black people out, leaving the areas where black people already lived and establishing a new, all-white community and actively policing who was allowed in, actually passing town ordinances banning black people, and hanging signs on the outskirts of towns saying, “N****r, don’t let the sun set on you in this town.” The book Sundown Towns speculates that outside of the traditional south--places where slavery was prominent--the majority of incorporated communities probably kept out black people. (71% of all Illinois communities were all white in the 1970’s.) This is why there are so many poor black neighborhoods in major metropolitan areas--black people were paid less, given worse jobs, and then forced to gather in poor areas where they could afford or were allowed to live.
If this sounds like it’s all in the past antiquated, consider the events surrounding the pool in McKinney. Or the pool in Ohio that was told to remove its “White Only” sign from its pool...IN 2012. Or the horribly disproportionate number of black men incarcerated for minor drug crimes. Studies have already shown that black men are stopped more frequently, arrested more frequently, and sentenced more harshly than their comparable white counterparts. Black individuals that go on to kill or hurt people are labeled as “thugs” and generally demonized--”no angel” being a popular refrain. Even peaceful protests are viewed as disruptive and disrespectful. A peaceful protest in the Mall of America lead to police filing “disorderly conduct” and “unlawful assembly” charges against protesters.
Meanwhile, white people are usually given the benefit of the doubt. Even the guy that killed NINE PEOPLE after being welcomed into their church--and specifically telling one she was being left alive to tell the world--was being reported as “a loner” who “got off track” and was “mentally ill.”
The controversy of the omnipresence of the Confederate flag in the South is an important conversation to have. Perhaps it is a sign that America is FINALLY dealing with its complicated and sordid racial history.
The flag should come down from government property. Leaving the flag up is complicit agreement that racist views are okay, in the same way studies have shown that if you don’t speak up when your friends make racist or sexist jokes, they will assume you agree with them because you didn't say anything to the contrary, and thus their behavior is reinforced.
Stores and private businesses are a different matter. They can decide for themselves whether they want to sell or feature the flag or merchandise using the flag, and we as consumers will decide for ourselves whether we will patronize those stores accordingly.
While this is important, let’s not forget the real issue: even if the flag were to vanish completely except for museums and textbooks, that doesn't mean racism is gone. And let’s not use the South as a scapegoat to ignore a nationwide problem.
The South isn't racist.
The United States is racist.