If You Want to Get Rid of ‘Racist Flags,’ How About Starting with the American Flag?

by | Jun 24, 2015


It looks like open season has been declared on the battle flag of Army of Northern Virginia, which is commonly referred to as the Confederate battle flag. But, if you are looking for a flag to ban as racist, you might as well start with the American flag.

After all, the American flag is associated with the United States government that sanctioned slavery from the enactment of the US Constitution in 1789 to the addition of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in December of 1865 — months after the end of the war with the Confederate States. The CS government, in comparison, existed for less than five years, with slavery legal the entire time.

The American flag flies now for a government whose drug war and larger law enforcement system is responsible for black Americans being harassed, arrested, and incarcerated in extraordinary numbers. Remember the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution makes an exception to allow slavery as “a punishment for crime.” This is an exception that has been employed much in America recently, with the number of people incarcerated in prisons and jails growing five-fold in the last thirty years.

Of course, the Confederate battle flag opponents come out every four years to yell out “gotcha, you’re a racist!” at any presidential candidate who refuses to recite that the South Carolina government should remove the “racist” Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state capitol building. This occurs again and again despite the fact that the flag’s presence is a state matter over which the US president has no role in deciding.

The killing of several people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina last week has helped inflame the quadrennial attacks on the Confederate battle flag.

Some people even believe the root cause of the killings resides in a statewide hatred of back people that is interwoven with the fabric of that Confederate battle flag flying on the state capitol grounds.

It is not too surprising to see film director Michael Moore’s vehement comments calling for someone to tear down the Confederate battle flag on the South Carolina capitol grounds and relating the flag’s presence to the killings. His comments are one sample of the torrent of similar comments being made since the killings.

Over at The Intercept, Jon Schwarz does not want to stop at taking down one flag. Schwarz writes that taking down the Confederate battle flag at the South Carolina capitol grounds “seems like a good start, but maybe not the place to end.” Schwarz lists six additional cultural items to purge from the state — three statues, the name of a street in Charleston, the Charleston city seal, and the South Carolina state flag. He doesn’t claim that any of these cultural items say anything explicitly racist. Rather, he says they all have some connection to slavery.

Schwarz sees this purge of his listed cultural items as just a start. Indeed, he is seeking suggestions for expanding the purge list:

I’m sure there’s much more that could be added to this list. If you’re from South Carolina and would like to make some suggestions, please get in touch. (Also please get in touch if you have any ideas for getting Andrew Jackson off our money.)

As alluded to in the Andrew Jackson reference, Schwarz’s desired purge goes far beyond South Carolina. As he says, “every other place in America also celebrates the ugliest parts of our past.”

It is doubtful that a very high percentage of people looking at a twenty dollar bill or one of the statues Schwarz wants removed from South Carolina are celebrating the most inhumane things the individuals represented, did, or may be associated with. Some people take in the aesthetic and leave it at that. Some people ponder the times during which the individuals represented lived. Some people curse or celebrate the individuals represented. Different strokes for different folks.

The call for a widespread elimination of cultural items that may cause some people discomfort because of a relationship to slavery — and potentially a much longer list of verboten people, occurrences, and beliefs — brings to mind the destruction of cultural items in war. Addressing the intentional destruction of cultural items by the Islamic State (ISIS), Sturt W. Manning, the director of the Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies and professor of classical architecture at Cornell University, explains:

All attacks on archaeological sites and artifacts are brutal assaults on our collective human memory. They deprive us of the evidence of human endeavors and achievements.

The destruction eloquently speaks of the human folly and senseless violence that drives ISIS. The terror group is destroying the evidence of the great history of Iraq; it has to, as this history attests to a rich alternative to its barbaric nihilism.

While the sought purge of cultural items in South Carolina and throughout America is different in many ways from the destruction of cultural items pursued by ISIS, Manning’s observations suggest some important similarities. In America such cultural cleansing similarly threatens to obliterate Americans’ “memories” and the evidence of history. The whitewashing also attempts to alter the American narrative to remove the alternatives, with their both good and bad aspects, that may be suggested by the purged cultural items.

The German government’s attack on “degenerate art” in the 1930s and ‘40s is an illustrative example of the systematic destruction of cultural items.

Many people will find more surprising than Moore and Schwarz’s comments the articles by writers identified with libertarianism who single out the Confederate battle flag as universally conveying a predominantly or solely racist message.

Cato Institute Executive Vice President David Boaz wrote in 2001 that the Mississippi state flag should be altered because “the Confederate emblem in the state flag can’t be separated from slavery.” But of course it can, just like the American flag can be separated from slavery.

The governments of both the US and CS recognized the legality of slavery in their respective jurisdictions throughout their war. As the war proceeded, the US began eliminating slavery in conquered territory, but slavery remained legal and enforced in states that had not seceded from the US. Still, today many of the people singing the national anthem while looking at the US flag at any given sporting event are not all seeing the American flag as a symbol of slavery. Many of these people look past the decades of slavery and slave trade under US government protection. They also look past the Fugitive Slave Act that denied slaves their freedom even if they could escape to a state that outlawed slavery, as well as the fact that the US Constitution guaranteed through the year 1808 the legal continuation of the importation of slaves

Boaz’s conclusion derives from defining the Confederate States War as being about one thing: the Confederate States desire to protect slavery. This is a conclusion with which many people disagree. And even people who agree with Boaz’s conclusion about the war can still revere the Confederate battle flag while opposing slavery and racism.

Why is this so hard for so many people to understand? All sorts of Americans revere the American flag even though they don’t agree with everything the US government has done. An American Indian may cherish the American flag, not defining it as a representation of a government that slaughtered his ancestors and drove them from the land on which they lived. A liberal may cherish the American flag, not defining it as a representation of a government that does not guarantee single-payer health care, a $15 an hour minimum wage, and gay marriage. A conservative may cherish the American flag, not defining it as a representation of a government that imposes too much taxes, is soft on illegal immigration, and allows abortions. A libertarian may cherish the American flag, not defining it as a representation of a government that engages in endless offensive wars, mass surveillance, and the war on drugs.

Steve Chapman is emphatic in a Monday article at Reason that the Confederate battle flag has a universal racist message. Chapman states:

In 2015, anyone displaying that flag knows what it means to viewers, particularly black ones. It’s an expression of hostility, not only toward black people, but to broader ideals of how the nation should come to terms with the legacy of racism.

Yet, in the same article, Chapman discloses that in 1972 he displayed a Confederate battle flag from his dorm room window at college. And he says he did so for reasons that had nothing to do with expressing racism. Chapman explains:

Like a lot of people below the Mason-Dixon Line — white people, anyway — I saw the emblem as a token of regional pride. I didn’t revere slavery and Jim Crow. But I thought there was much about the South to love.

And if the flag annoyed the Yankees a little, that was OK. They were not as noble and blameless as they pretended to be. They were not going to make me repudiate my native region.

Chapman provides no explanation in his article why someone, like himself, could revere and display the Confederate flag without any racist motivation in 1972 while, in 2015, displaying the flag with a motivation like he had as a college student is impossible. It is hard to imagine what sort of tortured reasoning would be used to argue that point.

In 2011, Byron Thomas, a student at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, did just what Chapman did nearly forty years earlier. Thomas hung a Confederate battle flag in his dorm room window. Thomas even stood up to university administrators who demanded he take the flag down. As reported in a 2011 Associate Press article, Thomas presented an explanation for his action that is very similar to how Chapman describes Chapman’s motivations as a college student. Says Thomas: “When I look at this flag, I don’t see racism. I see respect, Southern pride.” This week, Thomas discussed in a CNN interview his reasons for his continuing reverence for and display of the Confederate battle flag.

Chapman and Thomas also serve as an example that people’s views regarding the Confederate battle flag are not determined by their race. Chapman is white. Thomas is black. Yet, as college students they both displayed the Confederate battle flag and did not view their doing so as an expression of racism.

Many people who would heap scorn on Chapman or Thomas for displaying the “racist” Confederate battle flag would praise someone for displaying the American flag. Yet, the American flag is associated with a government that has done much wrong, including to black people.

The “racist” label can be affixed to the American flag just as it can to the Confederate battle flag. The histories of the governments associated with both flags provide plenty of ground for arguments supporting the label’s applicability. Yet, each flag is cherished both by people who abhor racism and by people who embrace racism. If the Confederate battle flag must be taken down because of the history of the government with which it is associated, then why not take down the American flag as well?


  • Adam Dick

    Adam worked from 2003 through 2013 as a legislative aide for Rep. Ron Paul. Previously, he was a member of the Wisconsin State Board of Elections, a co-manager of Ed Thompson's 2002 Wisconsin governor campaign, and a lawyer in New York and Connecticut.

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