Albrecht: Stop Flying that Flag

by Emily Albrecht | 7/2/15 7:00pm

Whether you hail from Texas, as I do, or have spent your entire life north of the Mason-Dixon, the “Stars and Bars” Confederate flag is a symbol of slavery, racism and white supremacy. It does not deserve to be presented or preserved as anything else.

First, I must mention that I am a half-white, half-Hispanic woman. I do not and cannot claim to have experienced the racism represented by the Confederate flag, and this isn’t directed toward those African-American individuals who wish to reclaim this symbol for themselves. This column is directed toward those who have benefitted from the United States’ racist, white supremacist history — that is, white and white-passing Americans, such as myself. This is why, though a recent CNN/ORC poll shows that 66 percent of white Americans disagree with me, I argue that — given that they were the victims of slavery and white supremacy — what really matters is that 72 percent of black Americans see the flag as a brutal, sometimes daily reminder of the United States’ racist legacy.

In the wake of the tragic murder of nine African-American citizens in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17 at the historically-black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Confederate flag has sparked a national debate. The perpetrator of this horrific act of hate and domestic terror — who doesn’t deserve to have his name remembered — was a young white male who was later found to own and operate a white supremacist website entitled the “Last Rhodesian.” On it, there was a picture of him proudly flying the Confederate flag behind him. Before shooting the nine victims at Emanuel, the murderer went on an “eerie tour of American slavery,” as the Washington Post called it. He specifically visited places “that he associated with the subjugation of black people,” including a museum devoted to the Confederacy. It’s hard to believe this man posed with the Confederate flag because of his “Southern pride”.

I do not have to imagine the counter-argument, because I have heard it many times. It sounds something like, “It means racism to racists, but I’m not a racist! It means Southern pride to me!” While I believe that most who make this argument are not actively racist and see the Confederate flag as nothing but a sign of Dixieland, as individuals, we do not get to decide what culturally relevant symbols mean for society at large. Merriam-Webster defines the word symbol as “an action, object, event, etc., that expresses or represents a particular idea or quality.” The entire point of a symbol is that when used properly, people can understand and read it without confusion. A symbol is defined by a group, not an individual. It is foolish to believe that any one person can redefine a symbol whose history is tied to a certain ideology. What would the reaction be if I tried to argue that the peace sign represents hatred and war?

Just as the “it doesn’t symbolize that to me,” argument falls flat, so does the tired argument that what popular culture deems the Confederate flag is actually the Civil War battle flag of the Army of North Virginia, not the true “Stars and Bars”. Though that may be technically true, it is effectively meaningless. The so-called “Stars and Bars” largely re-emerged in the mid-20th century with the racist, segregationist States’ Rights Democratic political party, popularly known as the “Dixiecrats”, then as an anti-civil rights, white supremacist symbol. The fact is that, because popular culture has deemed this flag to be the Confederate flag, it now functions as such. When it comes to the effect of cultural symbols and symbolic language, meaning and understanding reign supreme — not technicalities.

Essentially, the display of the Confederate flag boils down to intent versus impact. With public, symbolic language, intent is subordinate to impact. What you mean to say when you proudly display a Confederate bumper sticker on your car is irrelevant — all that matters is what people are going to reasonably understand that symbol to communicate. The perpetrator of the Emanuel AME massacre did not choose to use the Confederate flag because he thought that people would read that symbol as anything other than white supremacy. If something has been a symbol of racism for over a century, you do not get to decide to redefine it now. If you want to show Southern pride, listen to the Dixie Chicks or brag about the superiority of Texas food (my favorite pastime) — let the Confederate flag be relegated to museums and history books, where it belongs.