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Yes, the Confederate Flag is Racist and Here’s Why

Yes, the Confederate Flag is Racist and Here’s Why

A certain odiferously racist symbol is making a comeback at a rural Ontario high school. No, not the swastika. Instead these Canadian students are flying the Confederate flag. That’s right. The South has risen again, North of the border.

Confederate pins, rings, decals — you name it — have become the latest craze at York Region high scool. The defunct flag of the former Confederate States of America was being sported by a large enough minority within the school that the administration had to call an assembly, explain the deep historical and contemporary significance of the symbol, and ban its use on school grounds going forward.

The administration is exactly correct in this matter, and I particularly appreciate that they took the time to give some of their less culturally-literate students a much-needed history lesson. Unfortunately, the complaints of affected students reveal their stubborn ignorance. They’re at that impressionable and inexperienced age where I don’t really want to label them as racist idiots, when they might simply not know better (though I wonder what’s wrong with their parents).

Instead, let’s give them a little remedial lesson, in the form of a Q&A, or a FAQ, as kids these days might call it. Here are our Frequently Asked Questions (at least, in York Region) about the Confederate flag.

Was the Confederacy racist?

Yes. Well, I mean, duh.

In the Southern states that were once members of the self-declared Confederate States of America, and whose attempted secession set off the American Civil War, a certain revisionist view of that time is very popular today. It’s known as “The Lost Cause of the Confederacy,” and its roots go back to the reconstruction period immediately following the South’s Civil War defeat.

In its modern iteration, proud white Southerners imagine a humble, down-to-earth folk whose way of life and independence were threatened by an elitist and totalitarian Union government. Confederate troops fought bravely and skillfully but were steamrolled by sheer force of numbers. Indeed, it never was possible to win this fight, even with moral right on their side.

Notice there’s no mention of the Confederacy’s god-given right to keep people as slaves. In this version of history, the “peculiar institution” wasn’t really what the war was about. But while it is true that Lincoln prioritized maintaining the Union over everything else, including ending slavery, for the South, at least, it was very much about slavery. On the eve of the war, Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens gave his now-famous “cornerstone speech”, from which I’ll quote:

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth…

Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of my favorite writers on race matters, and definitely the Civil War expert when it comes to short-form journalism. Read his article, “The Ghost of Bobby Lee,” for plenty more detail on what various states and statesmen in the Confederacy had to say about slavery.

Even if the Confederates were racists, hasn’t the meaning of the symbol changed over time, to represent a sort of “country pride” or “Southern pride”?

No, the meaning of the symbol hasn’t changed. The most you can say is that the historically-ignorant have sometimes used the symbol without being fully cognizant of its implications. You can’t take pride in a defunct government whose raison d’etre was preserving slavery without tacitly endorsing a racist view or being remarkably clueless. Even Lynyrd Skynyrd has completely stopped using the flag on their albums and promotional materials, finally coming to terms with its implications (better late than never).

The most prominent organization to make use of the flag today? The Ku Klux Klan.

Even if 99% of people agree it’s racist, aren’t the meanings of words and symbols still individual and relative to the person using them?

In a word: no. I can punch you in the face and then tell you that it was a gesture of respect, but it’s not just a question of what I believe my words and actions mean, but how other people interpret them. Exhibiting pride in our arbitrary circumstances of birth, be that nation, region, city, ethnicity, religion, or even the relative urbanity of our particular community, is, in my view, problematic from the get-go. But if you insist on exhibiting some type of outward “I’m rural and proud of it” signifier, go with a big belt buckle or a cowboy hat. The Confederate flag is taken already.

By racists.

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Photo credit: The Library of Congress American Memories Collection

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220 comments

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5:38PM PST on Jan 17, 2014

the people who think the confederate flag is racist know nothing about history there ignorant period!!!!

3:03AM PST on Dec 31, 2013

if the confederate flag is racist, then che guevara shirts should be misogynistic, warmongering, and politically opportunistic.

1:34PM PST on Dec 24, 2013

(continuation)
labelled as racist also. The North had slavery for many years before Northern abolition, and an almost identical version of their flag flies in every business and home around the United States. Labeling THIS flag as racist because slavery existed in its borders would, logically, be cause for the labeling of many other respected flags as racist also.

Third, iconography and symbols such as this are only as offensive as one makes them. A citizen might be offended if they see a Confederate flag flying outside some East Texan's house, but it cannot be ignored that it is the citizen who is choosing to be offended by it. Unless the person flying the flag in question is actively leading violent rebellion and the repression of African-Americans, they cannot be forced to remove it. If it is their intention to promote racism, then there is a host of far more incendiary racist icons one could choose. While the flying of a Nazi swastika lends itself to an unmistakable message. The intentions behind those flying such Confederate flags is usually more pure. Many, if not most, fly it because of their national pride, a deep respect for both the land where they live and where many of their ancestors died.

There is a dark side to this flag, I will concede that, but there is a dark side to nearly every country you can pledge allegiance to. Labeling this flag racist just antagonizes and causes further dissension and ignorance as not object in and of itself can be racist.

1:29PM PST on Dec 24, 2013

Mr. Boyce, I happened to come acrossed your article here purely on happenstance and after reading it and then seeing your credentials I have to say I am shocked at your ignorance. I am American and I have lived in as well as attended school in both the Norther and southern states. The Confederate flag was not a symbol of racism as you put it or a symbol of slavery or right to own a slave. The designation of the Confederate flag as "racist" and "not racist" is far more problematic and complex than the phrase does credit.

First, the Confederacy had a ton of flags. Their first National Flag was a red, white, and blue striped one with stars representing the states within Confederate borders. The second National Flag was a pure white flag with a square version of the offending symbol in the top. The third is the same as the second except for a red bar across the right. That is not to count numerous others, such as the Bonnie Blue Flag, the Secession Flag, and countless divisional and regional flags. The offending flag above, and most recognizable of the Confederacy, is the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. So simply stating a "flag" as the question states as racist shows a woefully ignorant attitude of the Confederacy flags.

Second, if the flag's only offensive quality is that it was the banner of a state in which slavery was legal, this would cause the Stars and Stripes and numerous other flags through the world, such as the Union Jack and French flag to, to be

3:03PM PDT on Aug 21, 2013

Damn yuppies!! Im a young black individual, where i'm from and anywhere i go i'm a damn proud REDNECK!!!! our flag is not about hate its about freedom and standing up for what you believe in!!

10:22PM PDT on Aug 11, 2013

i am so tired of being told i am racist because of my confederate flag. here is a quote from a great article.

"It may be true that some racists have used the Confederate flag, but racists also wave the American flag. Consider this: No slave ship ever sailed from a Confederate port or under a Confederate flag. On the contrary, virtually every American slave ship was from either New York or one of the New England states and they all sailed under the United States Flag. Also, at the time of the American Civil War, slavery had been practiced in every state and colony in America and was still being practiced in several northern states, under the Stars and Stripes, even during the War Between the States.
Ulysses S. Grant, commanding general of the United States Army during the Civil War was a slave holder. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army, was against slavery. The Confederate constitution outlawed the slave trade and Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, proposed a plan to end slavery altogether. There were more free blacks, and also more abolitionists, in the South than in the North. Also, tens of thousands of black soldiers fought for the Confederate States of America in a war which they considered a second American revolution, "War for Southern Independence."
Unfortunately racist groups have used the Confederate flag in recent years, but those same groups, especially the Ku Klux Klan, have historically used the American flag for a

12:53PM PDT on Jul 28, 2013

"But if you insist on exhibiting some type of outward “I’m rural and proud of it” signifier, go with a big belt buckle or a cowboy hat."

Maybe you have not visited the South you will rarely see a cowboy hat.

Having just moved to the south in a rural area, the culture is different they always hear that they are 'white trash, backwards, hillbillies, rednecks that they are some how less equal than the city folk. The people in the rural areas work hard labor jobs, and are mostly poor.

So it is perfectly understandable why they gravitate towards something thing that brings unity and the confederate flag brings that unity. To them it's about Southern Pride and they way of life they live today not about the past.

8:55AM PDT on Mar 22, 2013

These people are white trash. Hope they rot in hell and they probably will!!

4:57AM PDT on Mar 20, 2013

This flag is an inanimate object. It can not be racist any more than a gun can kill people.

The first blacks in congress were Republicans while the Democrats were forming the KKK.

12:23PM PDT on Mar 13, 2013

OK, looks like it cut off part of my post. I will shorten and clarify it...

Did slavery happen to white folks? Sure, though not as organized and as enforced in THIS country in any sense. We are, after all, talking about an institution. And we're not talking about a state by state supported institution that where whites were working for the Master generation after generation, hunted down if they escaped, had their families torn apart. Unless I misunderstood your subject in "happened to white people too."

Yes slavery has been with the human race for a long, long time. But certainly not as long term one race targeted in THIS country for any other group.

Why should Black people care? Well for similar (NOT the same) reason Jews would have a thing about the Nazi flag.

The reason for the "claim" you question is simple: the South was pushing for more slave states: slavery to be allowed to spread to the new territories. It was also not as much an ESTABLISHED institution anywhere else in the country. So, fair or not, the blame for most of this was placed on the South. While not completely true, it is what it is. I am simply answering your question.

As for the last comment: you may wish that but it's often not the way it works. Example: the cross. It has been redefined as a good symbol. Not sure very early Christians would have defined it that way.


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