At Culture on the Edge (from the University of Alabama Religious Studies Department), my friend Steven Ramey makes some important observations about the current debate surrounding the Confederate flag, touched off by the horrible race-motivated slayings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last week. I have been vocal, and much more political than usual for me, in calling for the flag's removal. Steven's post brings an important nuance into this discussion.
He points out that a symbol like a flag may have several meanings, depending on the person involved. It is not true to say that the flag must necessarily carry a meaning of racism, slavery, and segregation for everyone. If someone says that the flag means for them a celebration of heritage or ancestors, then we cannot (simply) say that they are lying or deluded. Symbols do not have fixed meanings.
All true. And yet.
I would put the case a bit differently: religious and political symbols do not have fixed meanings, indeed they do not have meanings at all. They are given meanings in particular contexts. Which put another way means that symbols do not have meanings, they have uses.
So, I want to ask not what the Confederate flag on the South Carolina statehouse means but for what purpose is it being used. It was put there during the years of the Civil Rights movement and desegregation, and was used as a statement of defiance against the federal government that had begun to mandate changes in American civil society, voting laws, education, and commerce. Flying the flag on the State capitol building was a statement of symbolic rebellion against "northern tyrrany," evoking a more violent but similar response taken by South Carolinians in 1861.
In that sense, the flag still could be considered an affirmation of heritage, a celebration of Southern independent spirit, of "states' rights" to direct their internal commercial affairs as they see fit. But we have to ask, independent for what and states' rights to do what?
In 1861, at stake was the state's right to protect property owners, the property being millions of dollars worth of human beings held in slavery. 100 years later, at stake was the state's right to preserve white ownership over swimming pools, lunch counters, voting booths, and schools. And both of these responses were rooted in deep and unambiguous racism.
Racism is not defined technically—or only—as an emotion, but as one's support for oppressive state policies and civil structures that discriminate against a class of people. In 1861, supporters of the civil war were racist even if they did not own slaves. In 1961, supporters of segregation were racist even if they personally loved and cherished all of the black folks in their community. And in 2015, supporters of the confederate flag are identifying with a racist agenda even if they personally abhor the actions of Dylann Roof, as I'm sure they do.
Symbols do not have fixed meanings, but their uses are powerful. The call to take down the Confederate flag is based on the pervasive use of the flag throughout history to support racist policies. And the act of taking it down itself would be a pretty powerful symbol, don't you think?