The question of what to do with the Confederate battle flag is easy to answer: hang it in your frat house window instead of a curtain. Or adhere it to the back of your truck. You can even wear it on a shirt while your Big & Rich shirt is in the wash. These uses of the Confederate flag occur in different contexts and reflect its diverse meanings, but they all send the same essential message: I am white. Over at the Atlantic, Yoni Appelbaum reflects on the problem with having a flag of whiteness, first designed by the losing side in a war over slavery and reinvigorated in the backlash against desegregation. Meanwhile, in the part of America that does not read the Atlantic, Republican candidates for president are conspicuously mum.
I know what you’re thinking: Aren’t the stars and bars a symbol of regional pride and/or states’ rights? That’s because you didn’t read the Atlantic article. In the popular imagination, the Confederate flag is a holdover from the Civil War days, beloved by racist peckerwoods but nonetheless a symbol of Southern pride, not black oppression. But according to Appelbaum, the Confederate flag was largely forgotten after the Civil War and only re-emerged as a prominent symbol in 1948, when Southern Democrats rebelled against Harry Truman.
Truman, as we all know, desegregated the armed forces and supported bills against lynching. The Dixiecrats who paraded the stars and bars on the floor of the 1948 convention hated him for that, and they nominated Strom Thurmond instead. Truman won the nomination, but his own party kept the incumbent president off the ballot in the deep South. After Truman won the general election anyway, Thurmond remarked in a speech:
“I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”
So the argument that the Confederate flag is just about SEC football and keeping the federal government off your back is historically ignorant: it was designed for a war to protect slavery1 and revived for a political revolt to protect segregation.
But historical ignorance is the very essence of American culture, right? That’s particularly the case among people who fly the Confederate flag. The meaning of a symbol lies not in its historical journey but in people’s understanding of it. In some distant future, the stars and bars may widely be understood only as a symbol of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and then that’s what it will mean.
The man in the picture at the top of this post probably does not think much about the 1948 Democratic National Convention. But I’ll bet you $20 I can get him to say the n-word within two hours of meeting him. Even as the exact meaning of the Confederate flag migrates over time, it remains anchored to a particular demographic. You don’t see it around the Large Hadron Collider. And you never, ever see it flown by black people.
Even if you accept the disingenuous argument that the stars and bars symbolize individualism, states’ rights or one of the other epiphenomena of the war that erupted when the South determined that slavery was more important than everything else in the United States, it also symbolizes cultural separation between black and white Americans. Whatever its history or nuanced symbolic meaning, it is a flag for one race and not another.
Symbols that conflate race and nationality are fundamentally un-American. We seem to have expended an embarrassing number of words to reach this conclusion, but the Confederate flag originated as a substitute for the flag of the United States. It symbolizes an imaginary nation like our own, but without that pesky all-men-are-created-equal part. In this way, it calls for an America as shitty as Europe, and it is dumb.
Dylann Storm Roof wasn’t thinking about states’ rights when he posed with the Confederate flag and a Glock. Roof is wrong about a lot of things, and in matters of semiology we need not take him as our north star. But there is a flag for white people floating around, and if college bros think it symbolizes being country and not giving a damn, it is because they have not been properly corrected.
I bet fewer people would fly the stars and bars if they had to admit they were racists. I bet more of them would have to admit that if we stopped kidding ourselves about what the Confederate flag means. I don’t think we should ban the stars and bars, but we should shame the ignorant hicks who fly it. The good old boys are not as good as they want to believe.