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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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226 comments

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11:15AM PDT on Sep 29, 2014

Was the Confederacy racist? Yes, but so was the USA at the time, which subsidized slavery with the Fugitive Slave Acts.
Does the confederate flag symbolize slavery? No. symbolism is an individual subjective thing. To some it represents slavery, but to people who display the flag it usually symbolizes freedom, government by consent, and the right to secede.
Is believing the stars and bars symbolizes freedom equivalent to punching someone in the nose? Of course not! The former does not aggress against anyone; at worst it offends the fragile sensibilities of a few politically correct assholes.

11:15AM PDT on Sep 29, 2014

Was the Confederacy racist? Yes, but so was the USA at the time, which subsidized slavery with the Fugitive Slave Acts.
Does the confederate flag symbolize slavery? No. symbolism is an individual subjective thing. To some it represents slavery, but to people who display the flag it usually symbolizes freedom, government by consent, and the right to secede.
Is believing the stars and bars symbolizes freedom equivalent to punching someone in the nose? Of course not! The former does not aggress against anyone; at worst it offends the fragile sensibilities of a few politically correct assholes.

4:41PM PDT on Jul 31, 2014

You also ignore the historical fact that Lincoln's emancipation Proclamation only banned slaves in the states that wanted to secede from the Union but actually still allowed slavery in the states loyal to the union. so going by your argument the Union flag (the curennt flag of the USA) is a symbol of racism too especially when we look at the huge act of mass genocide of the indigenous people committed under the flag of the Union during the 1800's after the civil war

4:08PM PDT on Jul 31, 2014

historically speaking the flag to which you are referring to is not the flag of the confederacy the flag you are referring to is the Army of Northern Virginia pattern battle flag, the Confederate Congress never officially adopted that flag. It is worrying how little you Americans know of your own history. In fact the modern flag you are referring to is not actually a flag from the civil war at all as the one you are referring to is rectangular and the original Army of Northern Virginia pattern battle flag was square with a white border. So the modern flag you are referring to actually means nothing as it is never even been a real flag

1:39PM PDT on Jul 24, 2014

The Confederate flag is NOT a symbol of racism. It never was and like anything will be misused by others...

A little history to educate...
The war was never over slavery, that was a nice way to present it to the masses to gain more support. The union had slave states and were still part of the union. The Emancipation of Proclimation only applied to the southern states. There were black families in tje south that owned slaves. It was never a black vs white... all colors fought on both sides. The stars and bars represent personal rights and the heart to fight for ones own rights/beliefs.

8:59AM PDT on Apr 17, 2014

It is so ridiculous to think that it was racist...Did you know that a couple of high school boys just got suspended in Long Island, NY for dressing up in confederate uniforms. I think that it is awesome that people like to dress and announce there heritage, every person from another country brings there heritage here so why cant we speak about OUR own. Im a little bite confused here. If you are white and proud you are a racist, but if you are of another race its OK that they aren't forgetting about there heritage as a matter of fact people encourage it. The double standard BS has got to go!!!

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

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