What’s in a Flag?

I first started writing this post on June 20, shortly after the Charleston church shooting. At the time, I was feeling baffled and sad and, honestly, angry, even though I really had no right to be angry. It wasn’t my community that was targeted; my perspective is comes from the other side.

But I was angry, and my anger clouded my thoughts so much that expressing them would have led me to saying things I would later regret — mainly because my anger was for people with whom I identify, those who make up the social circle in which I live. My anger was for people who, like me, have had the privilege of living in skin that is accepted, respected, and protected but who cannot (or will not) accept that we do not live in a post-racist society.

Back in May, when the Freddie Gray story was all over the media, I was confused how, after so many deaths of young African American men at the hands of police and vigilantes, there could still be people in our country refusing to acknowledge even the possibility that racism exists in our country.

I asked myself then what it would take for the racism deniers to see what is staring them in the face — the fact that racism is a fact in our society, not a theory or a possibility or a shadow of the past.  And I thought to myself — these people aren’t going to see what is right in front of them until something horrific happens, like a lynching or the burning of a black church. You know, the kinds of things that used to happen back in the days before the civil rights movement, when racism was law.

And then, on Wednesday, June 17, a white man wearing emblems of white supremacy proudly on his clothing, entered a historic southern black church with a gun and killed nine black people.


After it happened, I found myself thinking that now we would have no more excuses.  Now there is nothing else we can use to cover the abscess that is racism in our country. A white man  killed nine black people in a church that is a sacred symbol of the civil rights movement in the south. The denial must end here.

Except that it didn’t end there. People continued to struggle to find an excuse, any excuse at all to explain the motivation behind this hate crime, as long as it wasn’t racism.

And when I say people, I don’t mean the gormless trolls who lurk in the bowels of comment sections. I mean political leaders. Governors and congressmen and presidential candidates — people we rightly view as representatives of a significant percentage of our society.

When I started writing this, in that context, I was baffled beyond the point of frustration and into the territory of fury.

* * *

In the weeks since the murders of Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney , Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson, the conversation has, finally, begun to change. Many of those who hesitated to label the killings as a hate crime against black Americans have backpedaled. Some have admitted they were wrong.  The most vehement deniers haven’t stopped denying, but their voices have, at least, been drowned out by a louder call for equality.

The amount of change necessary to answer this call for equality is staggering — it always has been, which is why, after each instance of brutality against black people that gains national attention, the demand for change becomes diluted simply by how immense the problem is.

But after these killings in Charleston, our call for change seems instead to have become distilled into a demand for the removal of the Confederate flag from our public spaces.


It’s a start. Certainly a flag that was raised in treasonous rebellion against the United States in order to defend and promote an economic system that forced one group of men to call anther group their masters has no place in any authentically American institution. It does not belong on the flagpole of a State House building. It doesn’t belong in a state flag, or as a representation of any level of American government.

The validity of this argument was finally recognized by a majority of lawmakers in South Carolina, the heart of the confederate flag debate, and at last the flag was removed from a space it had no business occupying. And it is coming down in dozens of other places across the country.

Again, it’s a start. It is good to see that the reasonableness of the argument against having a literally treasonous flag flying over a state capitol has been recognized by many who once denied it. And it is a reasonable argument. It’s not a radical, fringe idea to suggest that a flag used in battle against the American Government does not belong in our public spaces.  And it isn’t a radical idea to suggest that a flag which represented an army rebelling at least partly in defense of an economic system based on the enslavement of black people is racist.

No hate here.


Yet we still don’t seem to have reached the point where, to believe otherwise —  that is, to believe that the confederate flag does have a legitimate place as a symbol of who we are in a pluralistic democracy based on the principle of the equality of all men – is also not a radical, fringe idea. We only have to look at the way our (black) president was greeted when he drove into Oklahoma City earlier this week. Welcoming him with the waving of confederate flags, people were quick to defend their actions as “not racist” but as a “celebration of their heritage.” (Arguments which are hard to believe when groups like the KKK, who openly identify as racist, rally under the mantle of that very same flag.) But beyond that, there is no separating the heritage of the South from the heritage of racism. The glory of the old South had its foundation in an economic system dependent upon the enslavement of black people. The history of our nation is imbued with the bloody stain of racism: we cannot bleach it out. But far too many of us continue to try.

NO HATE HERE... (Members of the Fraternal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan at Nathan Bedford Forrest Birthday march July 11, 2009, Pulaski, Tenn.   SPENCER PLATT/GETTY IMAGES)

No hate here… (Members of the Fraternal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan at Nathan Bedford Forrest Birthday march July 11, 2009, Pulaski, Tenn. SPENCER PLATT/GETTY IMAGES)

The confederate flag does have a place in America —  it belongs in museums, where we honor the history that has made us who we are today. The Civil War was by no means a war of pure good versus pure evil. There were heroes and virtue, villains and vice, and racism on both sides of the divide. The best way for us to understand the nuances of war is through our study of history — not through the veneration of a flag that represents to so many the greatest sin we have ever committed as a nation.


As I look back at this month of anger and hurt and social upheaval, I am still not at peace with the example being set by people who share my skin color and my privilege. In my continued frustration and disappointment, all I want to say is that these people do not represent me. Not me.  But perhaps what I should really be saying is, “I’m sorry.” Because I know that racism is alive and thriving. I know that the whiteness of my skin puts me at an automatic advantage. And I don’t know how to change it. And I am sorry.