I 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.