MEA CULPA

The ‘Southern Avenger’ Repents: I Was Wrong About the Confederate Flag

States’ rights? Heritage? I was wrong: The Confederate flag has always been about race.

06.22.15 8:40 PM ET

As a Charleston, South Carolina-based conservative radio personality known as the “Southern Avenger,” I spent a decade defending the Confederate flag that is yet again the center of so much controversy.

I said the flag was about states’ rights. I said it stood for self-determination. I said it honored heritage.

I argued the Confederate flag wasn’t about race. I believed it. Millions of well-meaning Southerners believe it too.

I was wrong. That flag is always about race. Whatever political or historical points the flag’s defenders make, there will never be a time—and never has been a time—in which millions of Americans have looked at that symbol and not seen hatred.

We can argue for the rest of time whether this is fair or not. And for the rest of time, that symbol will still be seen in an overwhelmingly negative light.

Those who see hatred have political and historical reasons too.

This has always been the Confederate flag debate game. One camp’s arguments are supposed to trump the other’s.

I’m not here to settle those arguments. I tired of them years ago.

But I am here to say there is something at stake far more important than this symbol.

Heritage might not be hate. But battling hate is far more important than anyone’s heritage, politics, or just about anything else. We should have different priorities.

I now have different priorities.

Dylann Roof is a reminder of what’s at stake.

***

The week before a white supremacist murdered nine black men and women in my hometown of Charleston, I was angry at my fellow conservatives.

A 14-year-old black girl attending a pool party in McKinney, Texas, had been manhandled and thrown to the ground by a police officer. The girl had done nothing except talk. She was just standing there with other teenagers.

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It was revolting to watch. I asked others to imagine it was their daughter.

The overwhelming response was that she was a “thug” who was “no saint” and needed to be taught “respect.” The comments were as revolting as the act—an adult mob praising the assault of a 100-pound, half-naked and scared black kid. I pleaded again for people to stop defending this. It got uglier.

It bothered me greatly, probably because at one time I might have done the same thing.

In my role as a conservative radio personality, I would’ve likely joined in in calling a group of excited black teenagers, or protesters, “thugs.” I might have called illegal immigrants criminals or worse. Muslims would’ve been slandered as terrorists.

Ugliness was a stock-in-trade.

I thought a big part of being conservative meant picking a “side” and attacking the other. I thought not caring what others thought or felt was part of it. Some of my Confederate flag debates certainly reflected that mentality.

This is something ideologues do and is by no means exclusive to the right, as evidenced by the way some liberals cartoonishly portray conservatives, Christians, and, yes, Southerners.

Ideologues ridicule and dehumanize people at the expense of their personhood. Ideologues believe some groups must be attacked, and although the groups are comprised of flesh-and-blood human beings, it’s better not to think of them as people too much—it could get you off message.

It’s crude collectivist thinking. It’s an intentional lack of sympathy. It’s dehumanization. It’s at the heart of everything that’s wrong with our politics and culture.

In its most extreme form, it’s what’s wrong with Dylann Roof.

Between the reports of his racist words and manifesto, we know Roof had a mission: to murder black people. Entering the Emmanuel A.M.E. Church Wednesday and sitting with the group for an hour, Roof confessed that he “almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice to him.”

But instead he chose to “go through with his mission.” He had to shrug off their kindness. These weren’t people. They were just “blacks.” They were on the wrong side.

Roof’s hateful tunnel vision led him to commit pure evil.

What is the polar opposite of such hatred? The forgiveness demonstrated by Roof’s victim’s families. Said the daughter of Ethel Lance, “I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you.”

“And have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people but God forgives you, and I forgive you.”

This is humanity. It is a rejection of collectivist thinking. It is the epitome of sympathy. It’s grace. It’s love.

My attraction to libertarianism a number of years ago began a journey of rejecting groupthink and placing primacy on the individual. Once you start down the path of putting individual human beings above whatever group they belong to, it puts politics—and everything else—in a new light.

Putting people before an agenda or broad prejudices puts us all in a much better place. It can, and should, make us repentant of our past behavior. It did for me.

A 14-year-old girl at a pool party isn’t a “thug” who deserves abuse. She’s a child. Decent people should view her as such.

We can be more decent.

As a native of Charleston, I was touched, but not surprised by some of the victims’ families’ responses to Roof. My hometown is filled with loving men and women of all races. You’ve seen them in the streets and at the vigils in the last week throughout the South Carolina Lowcountry, holding hands and sharing this grief.

They are also the kind of Southerners who would be attacked in another context for their religious or traditional beliefs. They are the kind of people who are being attacked right now by pundits living thousands of miles away from this heartbroken city, who know nothing about Charleston and choose to impose their own politics on this tragedy. Peggy Noonan is right, “Why don’t you leave the grieving alone right now? Why don’t you not impose your agenda items on them? Why don’t you not force them to debate while they have tears in their throats?”

Some of the people you’ve seen join hands with their Charleston brethren in recent days likely have supported the Confederate flag. Support for this symbol is hard for most outside the South to even understand.

I would ask readers to at least try to understand these folks. Many are not coming from a place of hate.

Others are. Too many have for a very long time. One hateful man did so again last week in a way our nation will not soon forget.

This is why it’s finally time to take down the Confederate flag.

***

As a Southerner, I long stuck up for my “side.” The South was right. The North was wrong. The Confederate flag was right and those who attacked it were wrong.

Those who defend the Confederate flag always have to add the caveat that others have “appropriated” it for racist causes. This is true.

Dylann Roof appropriated it precisely for this reason. He didn’t choose a random symbol and make it his own. He chose the Confederate flag precisely because of the negative light in which most view it.

I’m writing this column in a restaurant I frequent and am conscious every time a particular black server I’ve come to know walks by. I don’t want him to see the words “Confederate flag” and think I’m writing about it positively.

I have no intention of stopping him to educate him about the “true” meaning of the Confederate flag, as I might have years ago. I’m certain as a black American he already has a pretty concrete idea of how he feels about that symbol.

Black Americans have too many reasons to despise the Confederate flag. From slavery, to Jim Crow, to last week—it is so bloodstained today that it can only be thought of primarily as a symbol of terror.

Confederate flag supporters have argued for years that everyone should understand them. But black Southerners have tolerated something most of them consider intolerable for a century-and-a-half.

That’s time enough for understanding.

Understand this: Imagine your great-grandfather was a slave. Imagine your great-grandfather was lynched. Imagine your grandfather was forced to drink from a separate fountain. Imagine your father or mother was murdered by a deranged man with the Confederate flag all over his website.

Imagine these kinds of horrors were your American heritage. Imagine every time you saw a Confederate flag it reminded you of this.

Now imagine being told you don’t understand what the flag “really” means.

It’s an insult.

I care about moving beyond groupthink where right and left stop dehumanizing people more than I care about a flag. I care about white and black Southerners and Americans coming together, as we’ve seen on the streets of Charleston, more than I care about a flag. I’d like to see more coming together.

We will have a future that can be so much better than what a lot of Southern and American heritage represents, but only if we stop thinking of each other as separate camps constantly at war. We can only improve to the degree that we begin viewing one another not as enemies to be attacked but brothers to be loved.

Dylann Roof reminds us how hate destroys. The families of those he murdered remind us of the love we’re capable of.

The Confederate flag will always be a roadblock to the betterment of our natures. Let’s take it down so that we might all rise up.

Jack Hunter is the editor of Rare Politics (Rare.us)