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.

Related stories:

Frederick Douglass Day: Time to Give Credit Where It’s Due

Tea Party Activists Scheme to Block Obama Inauguration

Beyond Race: 8 Other Important Lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Photo credit: The Library of Congress American Memories Collection


Lorrie O
Lorrie O28 days ago

The 3-ness of n: e(n)lighte(n)me(n)t. nnn

Lorrie O
Lorrie O3 months ago

Blue Flag. White Tiger. Prism, ism, the ism.

Elizabeth C.
Elizabeth C.3 years ago

Rabel flag is not racist so get over learn the real truth and get ur facts straight first before u say anything

Jennifer M.
Jennifer M3 years ago

I am soooo over this issue! There is too much going on with it. It needs to be put in the museum and off our State House property.

Stardust Noel
Past Member 3 years ago

MYTH: The Confederate Battle Flag represents racism today.

FACT: The Confederate Battle Flag today finds itself in the center of much controversy and hoopla going on in several states. The cry to take this flag down is unjustified. It is very important to keep in mind that the Confederate Battle Flag was simply just that. A battle flag. It was never even a National flag, so how could it have flown over a slave nation or represented slavery or racism? This myth is continued by lack of education and ignorance. Those that vilify the Confederate Battle Flag are very confused about history and have jumped upon a bandwagon with loose wheels.


Tony J.
Tony J.3 years ago

The swastika isn't a racist symbol. It has been used by many cultures for centuries. If one has a swastika in a nazi battle flag etc, then you can claim racism. Learn your history.

Ben M.
Ben M.4 years ago

Im very sorry but this article is wildly inaccurate, and seems to be based on emotion rather than fact. Please, do your homework before posting anymore articles.

Ben M.
Ben M.4 years ago

Im very sorry but this article is wildly inaccurate, and seems to be based on emotion rather than fact. Please, do your homework before posting anymore articles.

David C.
David C.4 years ago

u should do your research a little better--- the MS state flag has never been used as the flag of the confederacy---- if u want a pic of the confederate states of america flag it flys at entry points of texas and at 6 flags across the country--the ms flag was used as a battle flag for other state militias a few times in battles because the Union soldiers new they were up against a mean ass force when they saw MS boys a comming--- so R.E. Lee used it strategicallly in a few battles to put a scare into UNion lines, flying the MS state flag even over troops from other southern states.

Hogeye B.
Bill Orton4 years ago

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.