The Confederate Flag: Why “Heritage, Not Hate” Is Irrelevant
In the summer of 2015, former Democratic Congressman Ben Jones of Georgia was upset. The “General Lee,” that orange 1969 Dodge Charger made famous in the TV show The Dukes of Hazzard, was about to lose its top, and Jones didn’t like it one bit.
You see, prominently displayed on the top of the General Lee was the Confederate battle flag. And now Warner Brothers Consumer Products, the company that produced General Lee model toys, was saying it would cease licensing merchandise emblazoned with the Confederate flag.
The General Lee’s rebel flag was an iconic image that symbolized, at least to Jones, everything The Dukes of Hazzard stood for. And Jones should know. He played “Cooter” on the show from 1979 to 1985. To him, “That flag on top of the General Lee made a statement that the values of the rural South were the values of courage and family and good times.”
Supporters of the Confederate Flag Say It Stands for Southern Pride
Jones is now a national spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), an organization that insists that the Confederate flag is not a symbol of slavery, racism, and oppression, as most African Americans perceive it to be. Rather, says the SCV, it represents the pride Southerners have in their ancestors who fought bravely for a noble cause. In the wake of the Charleston, South Carolina church massacre in which nine African Americans attending a Bible study were murdered by a white supremacist who considered the Confederate flag a fitting symbol of his beliefs, Ben Jones took to Facebook to make his feelings clear:
“Our beloved symbol is now being attacked in a wave of political correctness that is unprecedented in our nation of free speech and free expression. Activists and politicians are vilifying Southern culture and our heritage as being bigoted and racist. We know that this is not the case. And we know that in Hazzard County there was never any racism.”
While conceding that African Americans have a right to be offended by the flag, Jones sees such concerns as nothing more than their personal opinion. “They have a right to their opinion," he says, "and yes they find it offensive, but what they are saying is offensive to me. They don’t know my heart, don’t know the hearts of my people.”
Ben Jones defends the Confederate flag
But the issue goes far beyond personal opinion or what might be in any individual’s heart. Sociological research objectively demonstrates that the public display of the Confederate battle flag continues to be not just offensive, but an active threat to the well-being of people of color.
The Confederate Flag Remains Dangerous To African Americans Today
In 2008 Dr. Joyce Ehrlinger, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, led a team of researchers in a study designed to examine the impact of the Confederate flag on racial attitudes.
They conducted an experiment in which 108 white and 22 black students were shown one of two images on a computer screen. Each image was shown 20 times, but so briefly (15 milliseconds) that the viewer would not be consciously aware of seeing it. One image, shown to half the group, was of a neutral arrangement of colored lines. The other was a picture of the Confederate flag. Both sets of students were then asked which of a group of 2008 presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain, and Mike Huckabee, they might likely vote for.
The result was as clear as it was startling. Because of the brevity of their exposure to the images, none of the participants were consciously aware of which image they saw. Yet the white students exposed to the Confederate flag were significantly less likely to say they might vote for Barack Obama, the only African American candidate, than were those who saw the neutral image.
According to the researchers, this experiment demonstrated that just seeing the Confederate flag, even subliminally, made white participants less likely to vote for a black person.
In a second experiment, a group of 116 white students were brought into a room and asked to sit at a desk. For half the students, there was a folder with a Confederate flag sticker on it lying on the desk. They were told that a participant in a previous unrelated study had accidently left the folder behind. The other half of the students did not see the Confederate flag.
After being seated at the desk, the students were shown the picture of a young black man, and read a story about his behavior in a contentious but ambiguous situation. They were then asked to rate his character. The results of this experiment reinforced the conclusions of the first. Students who had been exposed to the Confederate flag on the folder were much more negative in their evaluations than those who did not see the flag sticker.
In their report, published in the journal Political Psychology, the research team concluded that just being exposed to the Confederate flag triggers racially biased attitudes, even among whites who are not consciously prejudiced. Clearly, even if the Confederate flag is a symbol of pride for those who honor it, it also carries a message of racial bias that can affect people at an unconscious level.
Whether or not the Confederate flag includes other nonracist meanings, exposure to this flag evokes responses that are prejudicial.— Dr. Joyce Ehrlinger
For a detailed description of these experiments, please see:
Just Seeing the Confederate Flag Triggers Racism, Research Says
A Confederate Flag Thought Experiment
Let’s try another way of getting a handle on the real message of the Confederate flag.
This photograph of a barn with a Confederate flag hanging on it suggests a thought experiment that might help to clarify whether that flag should be seen as just a reminder of Southern pride, with no negative racial overtones, or as a potent symbol of continuing racial prejudice.
Put yourself in the shoes of a 25-year old African American man. Your car has broken down on a rural back road in South Carolina. You can't get a cell phone signal, so you need to go to a near-by farmhouse to call for help. But as you walk onto the road leading to the farmhouse, you see this barn on the property, with the rebel flag proudly displayed.
As a young black man alone in a place where there would be no video cameras to record what really happened to you, do you think seeing that flag might affect your thinking with regard to the wisdom of walking up to the door of that farmhouse to ask for help?
Would you conclude that the display of the Confederate flag tells you something ominous about the property owner's attitude toward black people, or would you be confident that because the rebel flag simply represents the pride Southerners have in their history, there's nothing for you to worry about?
Take a moment to indicate how you would react
If you were a young black man, would you feel comfortable going to the door on property where a Confederate flag is displayed?
I'll confess that if it was me, I'd keep on walking and find somewhere else to phone for help. You say you'd stride confidently up to the door? Well, maybe you're more courageous than I am.
The Confederate Flag Cannot Escape Its History
The purpose of any flag is to function as a symbol that embodies certain ideas. The motives or intentions of a person who flies the Confederate flag today cannot change what it has symbolized for more than a century and a half.
When the soldiers of Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia proudly marched under that banner as they fought against the United States, the Confederate battle flag was the approved and beloved symbol of their commitment to defending a system that was based on keeping black people enslaved. As the state of Mississippi explained in their official declaration of their reasons for seceding from the United States, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery."
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.— The state of Mississippi's declaration of why it seceded from the Union, January 9, 1861
Every soldier who fought under the rebel flag knew he was fighting to preserve a way of life that was “thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.” That was what that flag symbolized to those who flew it then. And that is what it inevitably symbolizes to the descendants of the victims of slavery today.
The Confederate Flag in the 20th Century
Throughout the 20th century the Confederate flag was the banner under which organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, White Citizens Councils, the Dixiecrat political party, and more recently, numerous white supremacy groups have operated. It is thus associated with decades of prejudice, discrimination, vilification, and unrestrained violence against African Americans.
During the Civil Rights movement various Southern states used the Confederate flag as a rallying point for their unbending resistance to Federal government efforts to enforce equal citizenship rights for African Americans. That’s what that flag officially symbolized in states like Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina through much of the last century.
That is the “heritage” that is indelibly stamped on the Confederate flag by its history, and which no nostalgic longing to identify with noble and valiant ancestors who heroically fought for what they believed in can erase.
The Confederate Flag's History Defines Its Meaning Today
Perhaps Ben Jones is right in believing that those who proudly display the Confederate flag today have only pride and not hatred in their hearts. But even if that’s true, it cannot and does not change the significance embedded in that image by those whose shameful beliefs and actions have defined it throughout its history.
People of good will look forward with hope to a day when racial animosity is such a long-forgotten aberration that all Americans, black and white, can view the Confederate flag simply as an emblem of all that's best about the South. But that time is not yet. As long as racial hatred remains a reality among us, the Confederate battle flag will be its symbol.
In his message to Congress in 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln had a warning for the leaders of the nation in that momentous era:
“Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.”
Neither can the Confederate flag escape its history. And the fiery trials to which this country has been subjected under its shadow continue to light it down, in dishonor, to this generation and beyond.
© 2017 Ronald E. Franklin