Neutralizing Racist Emblems

Neutralizing Racist Emblems

Americans need a crash course in how to argue.

Inundated by partisan “screaming head” content daily on cable TV and blogs and social networks, we need a refresher on respecting opposing views for a healthy public discourse.

As a college English professor, I’ve been wondering about this as I witness my freshman composition students struggle to explain opposite viewpoints in essays. But after reading about Byron Thomas, a 19-year-old University of South Carolina freshman, I’m encouraged.

Thomas, who is black, hung a Confederate flag in his dorm room window after researching its meaning. Initially there were no complaints, but then university administrators asked him to take it down for violating the school’s anti-racism code. Thankfully, they came to their senses and reneged, realizing they were violating his right to free speech.

The Confederate or Rebel Flag is what Southern states that seceded from the Union fought and lost under during the Civil War against the North. The war was complex, but hinged and swung on slavery, especially as black men joined the Union army, helping to turn the tide toward victory. For many, the defeated Confederate Flag remains a symbol of racism and white supremacy.

In a video blog post, Thomas explained that he understands this history and respects blacks and whites who have fought and died for justice and equality. He believes the flag was co-opted by racists and chooses to see it as a symbol of states’ rights and smaller federal government. Besides, the near extinction of Indians happened under the American Flag, as well as slavery, sexism, legal segregation and the discrimination and racism that remain today. Thomas’ point is that these are shackles of previous generations and he wants his Millennials to have their turn with the banner for a better future. Move forward by changing what old symbols mean.

Of course, this is not a popular position for an African American to take, no matter how well reasoned. And just a glance at some of the negative comments at the CNN blog post about Thomas’ story reveals the intensity of emotion on this issue.

Even Thomas’ parents have challenged him on the matter, to the point that he said he was reluctant to raise the flag again because of their disappointment. As a parent of college students, I understand their concern. But as a Gen-Xer who believes in pushing boundaries, I’m impressed with this young man.

Can and should we change the meaning of symbols? Of course. It often happens with our language over time as words, which are merely symbols of meaning, evolve. “Bad” changes to “good.” “Cool” changes from a description of temperature to a description of one’s popularity. “Nigger” becomes “Nigga.” (Well, I don’t know about that one).

But the point is if we listen to each other, and take time to understand opposing views, we could become better informed in our convictions or perhaps change for good. We might find that we share more in common than not. Symbols and meanings are social constructs. They exist in the mind. If we truly strive for peace and understanding, even evil symbols, such as Swastikas or “stars and bars,” can weaken to worthlessness, especially among those who never suffered under them. The cross was a symbol of pain and condemnation, but Jesus turned it into one of ultimate sacrifice and redemption, right?

Well, the risk of what Thomas proposes is that we forget why the symbol was changed. “Choosing” to see the Confederate flag as non-racist also plays to the agenda of those who, in the name of “honoring Southern heritage,” would delete slavery and black pain from the Civil War narrative. This would be particularly devastating if embraced by young blacks — the generation for whom slaves prayed to God to grant a better future. It is our responsibility to honor our ancestors by “never forgetting” and by achieving dreams that for them were deferred.

Perhaps the younger generation could weaken the Confederate Flag by commercializing it. They could sport “Confed Gear” like how those “X” hats and shirts promoting Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcom X went out of style when white kids began wearing them, too. I could be wrong, but it seems Thomas is on the right track in understanding free speech and using it for the public good. He told CNN the following:

“I learned that my generation of people are applauding me and telling me they want to see things different now. I’ve gotten so many friend requests on Facebook. They are encouraging me. The generation before has mixed views about it, strong views. The generation before won’t let us think for ourselves. They had their chance to think and run things but we need to have our chance. We will have our turn to step up to the plate and get out of this mess that we’re in.

“I respect where they are coming from. I’m not saying that what happened didn’t happen. We don’t want history to repeat itself, but I see where they are coming from. They endured things I might never endure, but why do I still have to feel grounded, that I have to endure it? They weren’t allowed to go to school with white people but I am. I have never been to a school without white people. Why can’t my generation start making our own history? I respect every black person for the civil rights movement. I just want us to move on from all of the hatred that’s still dividing us today. I’m tired of us still being divided.”

Son, you are persuasive and I’m proud of you for having the guts to make this sound, thoughtful argument.

Your parents raised you well.

Is the South Still in Denial?

Is the South Still in Denial?

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour recently acknowledged that the Civil War was fought over slavery. As reported by Politico, Barbour recognized that “Slavery was the primary, central cause of secession.” That may not seem like news, but many Southerners have insisted that the “War of Northern Aggression,” as they call it, was fought over more palatable issues, such as states’ rights or economic autonomy. That is nonsense, but it still took some courage for Barbour, in an interview with professor Robert S. McElvaine of Millsaps College, to repudiate a long-held myth about the nobility of the “Lost Cause.”
Of course, Barbour’s repudiation of secession is no doubt prompted, at least in part, by his all-but-declared candidacy for president. As a national candidate he will have to appeal beyond his Southern base, and that means rejecting Confederate apologia in favor of, well, actual history.
Read full post at Salon.com

Missed Opportunities

Growing up in the North, it can be puzzling to hear of Southern whites who insist on celebrating their racist past.

Whether it comes up in the hoisting of the rebel flag at a state capitol, or opposing the stripping of a Confederate soldier’s name from an elementary school, my simplistic, New York Yankee, public school education teaches that those folks are just clueless rednecks. The South was violent and intolerant compared to the North, we learned. During the Civil War, the bad guys wore gray and wanted to keep blacks enslaved. President “Honest Abe” Lincoln freed all of the slaves and kept America unified. During the civil rights movement, the good whites from up North went down South and helped black folks bear the dogs, water hoses, and end the lynchings. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached about his dream during the March on Washington and segregation finally ended.

But a good college education, deeper history books, and wisdom born of life experiences have taught me that America’s racial heritage is much more complex than that. Besides, living several years now in Virginia’s Hampton Roads area, the epicenter of America’s birth and the “War Between the States,” I understand the different sides of racial tension a lot better. While most blacks saw the war as a tragic but necessary event that led to their people’s freedom from slavery, many whites in Southern states saw it as an assault by the north on their heritage and sovereign rights. Both are true.

This year, as the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War nears (April 12, 1861, is recognized as the date of the war’s first shot), yet another firebomb from the past is flaming racial tensions in the Deep South. The Mississippi Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans has proposed a specialty license plate to honor Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. This “war hero” also led the 1864 Fort Pillow Massacre, where several disarmed black Union soldiers were killed while surrendering. Forrest was also a founder of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Confederate veterans say Forrest and other soldiers were brave men who “put it all on the line” for a cause they strongly believed in. They were protecting their families, land, and livelihood. As for his Klan ties, Forrest renounced his membership later in life, in the same way that Supreme Court Judge Hugo Black and Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia had.

According to published reports, the state’s NAACP President Derrick Johnson said the license plate idea is offensive, mainly to black Mississippians who comprise 40 percent of the state. The Klan is “a domestic terrorist organization,” he said adding that the NAACP planned to insist Gov. Haley Barbour denounce the license plate.

Meanwhile, Barbour, who has GOP presidential nomination aspirations, has said he’s sure the proposal won’t pass in the state legislature and that if it does he won’t sign it; however, he refuses to denounce the license plate proposal outright. For Barbour, 63, it has been another misstep on race. Last year he claimed to have gone to integrated schools and that during the civil rights movement he just didn’t “remember it being that bad.” After Gov. Bob McDonald of Virginia, apologized for failing to mention slavery when he proclaimed April as “Confederate History Month,” Barbour said the controversy “doesn’t amount to diddly.”

Barbour is obviously pandering to the far right-white vote, but both he and the NAACP’s Johnson represent a deeper problem. When leadership is unwilling to have an honest open dialogue on race and retrench instead, it’s more likely the rest of us will follow to our predictable, polarizing positions behind the color lines.

In 1998, President Clinton, a Southerner, vowed to lead the country in an “unprecedented conversation about race.” It fizzled out, but at least he tried.

Now in 2011, with ironically, the first black president in office, we are perhaps even more polarized. After hearing Obama’s profound speech on race during the 2008 campaign, it seemed he might be the one to lead us to a more substantive conversation. But President Obama, a Northerner by way of Hawaii, and his administration are spooked by race. They avoid the discussion by any means necessary.

It’s sad, but maybe it’s best that the leadership on race come from the state, local, and personal level.

Gov. Barbour and Johnson of the NAACP could better serve Mississippians by flipping the predictable race conversation. Lead an open and honest discussion about race, instead. Use the opportunity of Confederate History Month to build a sense of respect and understanding of Mississippi’s black and white histories that are both true and inseparable. It could lead to healing and even racial reconciliation.

It could become a model for how we together acknowledge the dark and bright sides of America’s history.