After the racially motivated shootings in South Carolina on June 18, the issue of the Confederate flag’s presence on state property has taken center stage. Is it a distraction from a larger fight about systemic racism or is it a core part of the fight against racism?
Let’s think about a few issues first: The Civil War involved slavery. Multiple states stated this in their declarations of secession, as well as the Confederacy’s president, vice president, and multiple governors. The only way in which the Civil War was about states’ rights was about whether a state had the right to enslave Black people.
The “Stars and Bars” was not the official Confederate flag. It was the battle flag of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. However: if your best argument is this is the flag people fought and died for in order to keep Black people enslaved, instead of the one a bunch of politicians sat under safely at the capitol, you need a new argument. The “Stars and Bars” only regained popular use in the 1950s and 60s, as a Dixiecrat symbol of resistance to integration and Civil Rights.
There’s also the heritage argument: only a third of Antebellum Southerners owned slaves. Some studies estimate it at a half, some estimate it at less. Either way, the entire economy and society of the South were built around slavery. The slave economy did not just consist of owners of slaves. It consisted of those who transported them, who supervised them for slave owners, who sold them at market, who inspected and appraised them, who disciplined them, who hunted them down. Even those not directly interacting with slaves relied on resources and wares gathered and created by slaves. That’s your heritage – even those who didn’t own slaves relied on them nonetheless.
The Confederate flag is a symbol. An idea behind removing the flag is the removal will provide a false sense of accomplishment while not actually changing the lives of the people who live in South Carolina. It won’t effect systemic racism in the least. Is this true?
They’re both right and wrong. The problem with this lies in thinking removing the flag and getting people to act for civil rights are mutually exclusive, instead of two sides to a struggle that feed into and support each other. People don’t get up and move for actual change; they move when symbols make it so obvious the change at hand can’t be ignored.
Most successful protest movements choose their symbols early on, and they rally around those symbols. This fight is no longer isolated to South Carolina. Anti-Confederate rallies and Confederate flag burnings are now taking place across the nation.
Furthermore, symbols matter. We fight for more women on film because of what that will mean to young women watching in the audience who can only find male heroes on the screen. We fight for the acceptance of Caitlyn Jenner, not because we care about Caitlyn Jenner specifically (we don’t even know her), but because of what she represents for the popular acceptance of transgender everywhere in this nation. We fight for the Washington Redskins to find a new name because of the connotations their current name communicates to fans.
Symbols matter because they translate to society on the whole the biases that are and aren’t acceptable. They extend into how history is taught and how news is reported. They enter our lives every day and influence how we’re willing to interpret the world bit by bit. Symbols work by attrition, breaking us down until what we thought was once unthinkable is now just a normal part of life. Their power lies in making us think they aren’t a big deal. They can make us accept the small change of an image as a way of creating room for the larger idea it represents.
They are like water shaping a riverbank – a day’s work makes no difference. Over years, a single symbol can completely reshape you.
Even though some think removing the Confederate flag and its image from stores is crucial, it merely scratches the surface of a larger struggle: part of the power of symbols also lies in their ability to take the brunt of a charge. Symbols can take the fall so the movement behind them doesn’t have to. Symbols can achieve such power in our minds, and can represent so much over time, we can think defeating one is equivalent to defeating an entire opponent. It’s not – at best, it’s taking his guard down.
Even though removing Confederate symbols from our society is crucial, it can be argued it will only provide a false sense of success.
Here’s the kicker – that false sense of success is also crucial. Protest movements need allies and they don’t always get them by teaching holistically about the reality of systematized racism. They can communicate that, but you need to capture your allies’ attention for an awfully long time in order to do so.
What could possibly provide that much time? What can capture someone’s attention for years on end, day after day, creating a small change in people’s minds as a way of making room for the larger ideas it represents? A symbol.
Non-Black allies didn’t flock to Black marches in the South during the Civil Rights movement until they saw the symbols – horsemen riding down women, fire hoses turned on college students, dogs loosed on children. Whether fair or not, movements are limited to those who believe they are affected. Those outside the immediate vicinity, those of another race, they might believe themselves to be unaffected. The reality is they are, but how do you show them? Cogent arguments and articles at length? They’d have to be interested in the first place to read them.
The most overlooked part of this fight is the re-purposing of the Confederate flag. It’s not ceasing to be a symbol – its meaning as a symbol is being changed. The flag no longer represents Southern pride to the vast majority of Americans. In the space of days, it now represents nine people shot dead while they prayed in a church.
That flag’s power as a symbol, as a buffer, and as a fall guy for racist communities is being weakened. Its power as a symbol of death and hate is being made clear to the rest of the country. Suddenly, it’s our symbol – not to wave, but to burn. Not to fly, but to never fly again. Not to love as heritage, but to recognize as a window that finally shows us the sheer amount of hate it’s shielded from the country’s eyes for all these years.
Will this all provide a sense of success, false or otherwise? Yes, but you build protest movements on any sense of success. If Black protesters and allies can achieve success together, no matter how core the issue they’re fighting is or isn’t, that success becomes a symbol. Those allies are more likely to come to the next fight, and the next.
Even those who wouldn’t be convinced without a symbol have less qualms about rushing to the aid of the victor. Those allies aren’t crucial, but they are large in number, and their involvement can make change easier and quicker. As you’ve seen with the Confederate flag, they can swing an issue in a matter of days.
If a fight is won, however big or small it may be, fights in the future become easier to win, too. In that way, even a false sense of success can be made real, and serve as the foundation to something larger.