Symbols and the Confederate Flag

The confederate flag flying in the windI am not a fan of the Confederate Flag. While I have spent all but two of the past 28 years in states that joined the Confederacy, I grew up in a Border State with parents from another Border State, making me an outsider to many who see the flag as an important symbol of their Southern heritage. Despite all of this, I found myself bothered by the argument in last week’s Atlantic article by Ta-Nehisi Coates calling for the immediate removal of the Confederate Flag from the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol. Coates asserts that, since the shooter had apparent links to white supremacist ideology and the Confederate flag, these murders become the occasion finally to remove the flag from the Capitol grounds.

When he asserts “Surely the flag’s defenders will proffer other, muddier, interpretations which allow them the luxury of looking away,” he suggests that his understanding of the flag is its only meaning. Symbols, like a flag, do not have a singular fixed meaning. I have previously written on this site about another problematic symbol, the Swasitka, whose meaning has changed over time and in different cultures. While most of us in the United States immediately associate the symbol with Hitler and the Holocaust, the Swastika was a symbol of goodwill and wellbeing, even in the United States in the early twentieth century, and it continues to be used as a positive symbol in various communities.

While I do not see the Confederate Flag as neutral, it, much like the Swastika, does not have a fixed meaning. Many people associate it with slavery and efforts to resist desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement in the middle of the twentieth century (when the flag gained renewed prominence among some in the southeastern United States). That, however, does not automatically exhaust the meanings that people see in the flag. Seeing as disingenuous any assertion that the flag honors a broader Southern heritage or someone’s ancestors ignores the lesson of the Swastika (and lots of research in the humanities on symbols) to declare the fixed meaning of a symbol.

Coates supports this assertion with quotes from “those who birthed it.” Proof-texting the singular meaning of the Confederate flag with statements of leaders of the confederacy and John Wilkes Booth relies on narratives of origins, a method of argument that my colleagues on this blog have frequently critiqued (e.g., here, here, and here). A similar argument would be that the Swastika can only mean goodwill because that was the original meaning of the symbol, which is in itself a ludicrous assertion.

Coates’ argument has two problematic implications. Making the actions of the shooter frame the meaning of the flag implies and reinforces problematic generalizations about the South, particularly white Southerners. We have asserted repeatedly in our classes and in various blogs that the actions of some individuals or groups who identify as X does not reveal an essence or the true feelings of everyone who identifies as X. You could fill in the X with any number of group identifiers based on religion, race, ethnicity, gender, occupation, etc., perhaps even “white southerners”. Encouraging a generalized view of white southerners as being racist can easily absolve people from other regions of the persistent racial bias that operates in their lives as well.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the focus on the removal of the flag puts energy into what at best would be an important symbolic victory, but only a symbolic victory. I do not want to discount the pain that viewing the flag on the grounds of the Capitol causes for people, particularly those who have experienced being the target of discrimination. But, a focus on the flag becomes an easy way for well-meaning people to ignore the serious consequences, the pain and suffering, that persistent, systemic racism causes in South Carolina, across the South, and throughout the United States. If you want to argue for removing the flag because many citizens of the state find it demeaning, please proceed while considering the broader implications of how you argue against it.

If getting the flag removed seems almost impossible (even getting it lowered to half-mast is legally impossible), addressing the structural racism is an even greater challenge, for all of us.

UPDATE: About twelve hours after this post went public, Nikki Haley (governor of South Carolina) and a bipartisan group of politicians called for the legislature to remove the Confederate flag from the Capitol grounds. Whatever her personal feelings about the flag, she acknowledged the range of meanings that people see in the flag, “Traditions of history, of heritage, of ancestry” and “a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past.” Her argument for removing it, in part, was not an inherent meaning but its divisiveness and “The fact that it causes pain to so many is enough to move it from the Capitol grounds – it is, after all, a Capitol that belongs to all of us.” Whether politically motivated or not, her assertions create space to build a coalition and bring people together. For those who read my words as defending the flag’s placement, know that I hope the flag is removed in the very near future. I also hope that the people of South Carolina and the entire nation will see the removal as a first step, rather than a completed process that allows us to return to ignoring systemic racism.


Photo credit by eyeliam via Flickr (CC-BY-2.0)

10 Replies to “Symbols and the Confederate Flag”

  1. Hi Steven

    all that you say is true, but the lack of a fixed meaning of symbols doesn’t give political cover for deploying them in public, does it?

    We don’t display our public symbols with the caveat, “but this could mean many things depending on the historical and cultural context.” The historical and cultural context swirls around us.

    So, I’m not from the South, nor do I live in South Carolina, but I live nearby in North Carolina. So what does the flag mean in this context, for its publics?

    Continuing to display a symbol in public contexts where its inherent ambiguity invites both conflict and misunderstanding seems like a mistake. Isn’t this a practical question?

    If we can’t agree on what the flag stands for — if South Carolina can’t agree as a state on what it is for and what it means— why is it flying next to the Capitol? Whose identity does it establish? Whose act of identification with what? What political forces keep it there?

    25 years ago when driving through the South you could still buy little racist figurines of stereotypical blacks doing domestic work, etc., images evoking a nostalgic and picturesque southern narrative about its past life as a slaveholding region. Those aren’t available anymore in most places. People rightfully came to find them unacceptable. When I was growing up in Portland Oregon we could go to a restaurant called “little black sambo’s” for pancakes, where the menus were filled with racist caricatures. That doesn’t exist anymore. Good riddance.

    Sure, systematic racism is the bigger problem. But pointing out that signs are arbitrary in their meanings isn’t an argument that they don’t play actual historical roles in the operation of discourse. It’s a matter of local pragmatics.


  2. I think it is a bit of a stretch to argue that the author encourages generalizations about white southerners. He specifically speaks of the flag as tied to specifically ‘white supremacists’. At no point does he equate it with a broader picture of white southerners and create the space for that generalization, something you seemed to have inserted. Also, if we should be critical of any energy put into removing the flag because it only achieves a symbolic victory, should it not be taken down? This argument seems to place the symbol in focus outside of ‘systematic racism’ and ignores that it is very much embedded in systematic racism. The overall argument seems to be that one can only push for the removal of the flag if he/she expresses an adequate theoretical understanding of symbols, and that it is not a victory worth pursuing.

  3. Good luck going for nuance on the Internet! I understand your point and it is a good one. The only problem is that the people using the flag as a symbol for racism drown out the other meanings people may give to the flag. It’s tough to see those other meanings when their is such a dominant one in our culture. If it was taken down from the SC Statehouse, that might allow these other definitions to compete with the racist one. But I think the flag’s prominent display will hinder any attempt for the flag’s other meanings to gain acceptance.

  4. Dear Mr. Ramey,

    Thank you for your thought provoking piece. I enjoyed your observations about trying to find meanings in symbols and am compelled by your argument that it is difficult to find a fixed meaning in a symbol like the Confederate Flag. I also agree with your criticisms of Mr. Coates piece in the Atlantic. But I think the main criticism I would humbly levy against both this article and Mr. Coates piece is that there is a wavering between the general argument about the Confederate Flag and what it means to those who display it and the specific argument about the appropriateness of a US capital in the 21st century displaying the Confederate flag. The former is difficult to answer and I look forward to more of scholarship on the matter. The latter seems simpler.

    Your main argument against the specific case of removing the flag down from display at the South Carolina State House is that in the end also this would achieve is ‘a mere symbolic victory.’ But implying symbols don’t matter is specious. We are intellectual beings that use symbols to order our world. So symbols do matter. Words matter. So the idea that taking the Confederate flag down from the Charleston Capital is a ‘mere’ symbolic victory is an attempt to make something superficial which in reality stands as an important assertion of our values as a nation. It does matter. It will have impact. And it will impact the bigger issues you mention of structural and systematic racism as least in so much as declaring the cultural values that we as a society hold dear. We cherish progress and equality over historical baggage. Or let us look at it like this: if it really is a mere symbol, as your article purports, than whats the big deal? Why not just take it down? Or perhaps the question we should ask: Why is this flag’s ‘symbolic’ value to those who want to keep it up more important than it’s ‘symbolic’ value to those who want to take it down?

    Very Respectfully,
    -Joe Sousa
    Cambridge, MA

  5. Thanks, Matt. I agree with your assertions. Lots of arguments can be made for removing the flag, but considering how we argue for that is important. Implying that anyone who sees the flag as a sign of their Southern heritage is being dishonest, which I saw as an implication of Coates’ argument, turns away potentially allies. Suggesting that Southern heritage is nothing but racism turns away potential allies. Refusing to generalize about presumed political opponents is a good place to start in trying to make important changes, while demeaning one state or region as racist and backward serves to absolve other regions from similar problems.

  6. How we argue for removal of the flag is important, which was my larger point. If we assume that the only people who support the flag are white supremacists, then in think we have misread the way people view the flag and their other notions. It also tends to make anyone who opposes the flag flee like their credentials as a good person are safe without interrogating their own assumptions more generally.

  7. It is tough to see the other meanings, I absolutely agree, but recognizing that some who like the flag appreciate other aspects of Southern heritage becomes a way to encourage them to ally with opponents of the flag because of the pain that it causes others.

  8. Mr Ramey,

    I certainly understand the frustration with the symbolism on the battle flag standard. From one side I see my brothers in faith that adhere to the common rhetoric that the flag is a symbol of hatred. Then I hear from those I am close to that look at the flag as a last vestige of history that has since been revised to meet a new and acceptable standard. There is no perfect answer, and that’s the sad part. Too often our current society is a victim of feeling before fact. We have left behind greatest generations idea of “Sticks and stones…” and accepted the “right to he offended” instead. Your article was dang fine. Y’all be careful.

    -From beautiful South Carolina

  9. Thanks for the comments. People in South Carolina and many other places place positive elements on the flag, despite elements of its past.

    I don’t think it is fair, however, to discount the experiences that some have as the same as being offended. The fear that some have discussed that the flag generates comes from a history of physical oppression, chains and whips, then lynchings, and most recently shootings. Some people were offended by most post (often misreading it as a defense of the location of the flag), but their feelings are not in the same category as what some experience viewing the flag on the Capitol grounds.

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