We've Got Bigger Problems Than a Confederate Flag

A California bill that would ban displays of the Confederate flag does nothing to fight racism.

08.28.14 9:45 AM ET

You know we’re making serious progress on race in the USA when California is about to pass a bill that would prohibit the state from displaying Confederate flag and selling merchandise that features it. Free At Last! No longer will we have to endure the grievous injury of that flag popping up as a museum shop chotchke.

California Assemblyman Isadore Hall sponsored this one, the idea being to “fend off the ugly hatred of racism.” His bill passed the state assembly almost unanimously, and is now waiting for Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature. But after what’s been going on in, say, Ferguson, Missouri, over the past two weeks, doesn’t a bill like this seem a little, well, beside the point?

A serious approach to racism in this country will be about black men and the police. It is that nexus that teaches black America that there is something called a “war on black men,” which is what most readily comes to black people’s minds as the racism that America is “all about.” Skeptical? Ask some, even when a black boy happens to not have been shot dead lately.

And no, it shouldn’t be that we pay attention to that relationship plus less significant things at the same time. The reason is very simple: why, in a time of crisis, should we focus energy on anything but what matters most? Flags are not that. Not even the Confederate one. Frankly, the attention paid to its hoisting or display here and there is a futile endeavor, and here’s why.

The conflict comes down to the fact that many white Southerners today cherish that flag as a symbol of modern regional pride, with the South’s history of slavery and Jim Crow as something now in the past. To them, it is possible to embrace that flag as a statement about Southern folkways beyond the ugly racial part.

In opposition, many argue that the South’s very identity as a region is so intimately entwined with racism past and present that there is, effectively, no such thing as a statement of white Southern “identity” that should not make a black person uncomfortable. Today the white Republican takeover in Southern states might come to mind as reinforcing the idea that, as Faulkner had it, the past isn’t even past. As such, they argue, that flag just has to go.

And yep, the flag can be used in dog whistle fashion to signal a position on “those blacks.” Someone hoisting it might sometimes be referring to more than balmy weather, pecan pie, and “Y’all come back.” Life is never perfect, even after a Civil Rights revolution.

But think about it. If somehow we abolished the Confederate flag completely, then surely there’d be a new flag. Sheer resentment alone would ensure that someone would start fashioning one ASAP, and the Internet would ensure that it took root real fast.

And then—here’s why the whole battle is useless—outside of the South the idea would quickly set in that the new flag has “overtones” of what the old one stood for. No matter what was on that flag—a white buttercup, a corn muffin, the skeleton of an alligator, who knows?—the enlightened position would be that it is a dog whistle to racists. Most certainly, bystanders would not simply allow the new flag as “OK.” It would be an immediate object of, as academics often put it, “contestation.” We’d be right back where we started from.

The only alternate scenario would be to tell white Southerners that they are simply not allowed to have a flag, period. But that would be a strange thing to require of any subcommunity whatever its history—and, certainly, would be instantly contravened in protest anyway.

This is the reason for my two recommendations on the Confederate flag. One was spearheaded by Kanye West of all people, who was, for once, dead on in his idea that one way to weaken the force of the flag is to take over the symbol ourselves. West has worn a jacket with the flag on it, and sold merchandise with the flag on it during his tour last fall.

West is not exactly a man of bardly wisdom most of the time, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day. His statement about the flag—“It’s my flag. Now what are you gonna do about it?”—is my idea of Black Power.

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Trying the ban the flag puts us in the down position—we say “No more of that!” which is directly followed by jerks doing exactly what we told them not to, and year after year they keep doing it to watch us getting upset. Nothing moves forward.

Showing that the flag can’t hurt us puts us in the up position, just as women, gay men, and to an extent black men have done by incorporating slurs used against them (namely, ones beginning with B, F, and N) as terms of affection. People in a related battle, the one against cultural “appropriation,” often say that imitating people is a way of negating them, denying their legitimacy. OK—oughtn’t the same people understand where Kanye is coming from?

As a black Caribbean political activist told me 20 years ago in Nicaragua, don’t cry about it, fight it! He had no patience for the tendency in black American politics for people to talk about being “hurt” rather than just punching back with a frown on our faces and a stake dug into the ground. It threw me at first, but it shaped forever how I view these things.

And then there’s a second approach to the flag, related to what that man told me. Given how urgent things such as the War on Drugs and its effect on black men and the cops are, might we not simply walk on by the damned flag?

If we are really OK with ourselves, we do not require that our environment be perfectly free of any visual evidence historically connectable to ills of the past. Beyond a certain point—and I say we’re beyond it—it’s time to live in the present and look forward.

And no, not forward in the sense of pretending racism doesn’t exist. I mean forward in working on racism-related issues that are susceptible to constructive address—which flag-banning is not—and making a real difference in black lives (and deaths).

When we talk about “fending off” racism, we need to fend off the kind of thing that happened to people like Michael Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, and Ezell Ford all within the past month’s time. Make an America where this sort of thing isn’t routine, and maybe then we can get to worrying our heads over flags. And yet, even then, I highly suspect most of us wouldn’t really even feel the need to bother.