BW editor Joel Dyer is the author of Harvest of Rage: Why Oklahoma City is only the beginning. His work on the subject of domestic terrorism has been featured in Vanity Fair, New York Times Sunday Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Utne Reader and Mother Jones. He was called to testify as an expert on root causes of the growth of the antigovernment movement before a Congressional subcommittee in 1997 but was not allowed to testify due to a conflict with the ongoing trial of Oklahoma City Bombing accomplice Terry Nichols.
On June 27, 30-year-old educator and activist Bree Newsome climbed the three-story-high flagpole in front of the South Carolina statehouse in Columbia and pulled down the Confederate battle flag. Her climb was necessitated by the fact the flag was more or less permanently attached to the poll where it flew 24 hours a day with no way of being lowered or flown at half-mast. Until that moment, a piece of cloth with some symbol of the Confederacy had been flying continuously at the South Carolina capitol since 1961.
From her actions and subsequent comments to the press, we know that for Newsome, the red cloth with its stars and bars is a disturbing symbol of racism, slavery and oppression.
Search the name Dylann Roof and you will eventually come across the same flag. Once you get past the thousands of stories describing how the skinny, 21-yearold man with dead eyes allegedly attended a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina wherein he opened fire on the congregates, slaughtering nine innocent people — you will find photos of Roof posing proudly with the Confederate flag that Newsome finds so offensive.
From his own photo collection, we know that Roof held the Confederate flag in high regard. It is alleged that as Roof was murdering his victims, he told them it was because they (presumably minorities, particularly blacks) were “taking over the country.”
From his actions and comments, we know that, for Roof, the red cloth with its stars and bars is a powerful symbol of white pride and a type of twisted patriotism that believes our country should be controlled only by whites for the benefit of whites. Roof has reportedly said the shootings were an effort to start a race war.
Attend a football game at the University of Mississippi and you will see 50,000 people of all races hoisting the Confederate flag as they cheer on their team, the Rebels. Again, it’s safe to assume that for most of these fans, the Confederate flags they are waving are nothing more than a symbol of school pride.
And for quite a few Southerners — despite what many want to believe in the wake of the grotesque church murders — the Confederate flag really does stand for “heritage, not hatred,” a phrase that has quickly made its way into our lexicon as part of the flag debate, a debate complicated because one flag can have so many interpretations.
Research tells us how we view this particular piece of cloth depends on our race, our geographic location and our level of education.
According to a 2011 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for U.S. Politics and Policy, “Only a small number of Americans say they display the Confederate flag, but that symbol of the Southern cause elicits more negative reactions from some groups — especially African Americans, Democrats and the highly educated. Nevertheless, most Americans say they do not react positively or negatively when they see the Confederate flag.
“Fewer than one-in-ten (8 percent) say they display the Confederate flag in places such as their home or office, on their car or on their clothing; 91 percent say they do not. The number that displays the Confederate flag is just a small fraction of the 75 percent who say they display the American flag in their homes or offices, on their cars or their clothing.
“Far more African Americans than whites have a negative reaction to the Confederate flag (41 percent to 29 percent). Still, about as many blacks have no reaction (45 percent) as a negative reaction to the Confederate flag. Among whites, 61 percent have no reaction.
“Whites who consider themselves Southerners have a more positive reaction to the Confederate flag than do other whites: 22 percent say they react positively when they see the Confederate flag displayed, compared with 8 percent of all whites and just 4 percent of whites who do not consider themselves Southerners.
“Nearly half of those with at least a college degree (46 percent) say they have a negative reaction to the display of the Confederate flag, compared with a third (33 percent) of those with some college experience and just 18 percent of those with a high school diploma or less.
“There also are partisan differences in reactions to the flag: about twice as many Democrats (44 percent) as Republicans (21 percent) react negatively to displays of the Confederate flag. And Republicans are more likely than Democrats to have a positive reaction to the flag (15 percent vs. 7 percent).”
No doubt these numbers will have changed in recent weeks as media saturation of the flag debate, sparked by the Charleston church shooting, has made its way to our nation’s water coolers.
America is now arguing, sometimes violently, over the future of the Confederate flag. Should it be illegal to display this piece of cloth on government property? Should it be considered a form of hate speech? Should stores sell it?
It’s an interesting conversation — one we should have had decades ago to be sure. But in the current context, it is a discussion that sidesteps the larger issues at hand.
In one sense, flags are merely pieces of cloth, products of the textile industry and nothing more. The only thing that makes a flag different from a washcloth is the meaning each of us projects onto it.
Flags are simply mirrors reflecting our individual experiences. For Old Miss alum, the flag may represent a joyous time away at college with friends long since gone. For a black American who grew up being harassed, oppressed and even physically abused by people flying the flag, tattooed with the flag or driving cars with Confederate flag license plates, the flag means something completely different. For that reason, we need to be talking about racism and guns and hate groups, not merely raging against symbolism in the form of a flag that has a different meaning to every person who sees it.
This is not to say that the Confederate flag is unimportant to those who have felt its sting or have viewed it as inspiration for committing the unthinkable. It is only a reminder that taking down a flag in a few high-profile places will not cure the underlining social problems, and the current effort to diminish the Confederate flag will not be without consequences. In the end, as with other mostly symbolic efforts orchestrated primarily by politicians and media coverage, the actual, real world outcome of the flag debate may be the exact opposite of what most people are trying to accomplish. All indications are that it will be similar to what occurs when the gun control debate heats up following every tragic mass shooting. Despite the best of intentions, such efforts generally lead to more gun sales, including to the most paranoid among us who are the most likely to turn their firearms on innocent victims at some point down the road. Sadly, this isn’t speculation; it’s simply what happens in the real world. When we push, there is pushback.
For instance, in the early 1990s, it was the threat of increased gun control by the federal government that fueled the birth and rapid growth of the antigovernment/patriot movement, a movement that eventually grew to several million people and led to tragedies such as the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Texas as well as the Oklahoma City bombing.
South Carolina and other states may ultimately remove Confederate imagery from their Statehouse grounds, flags and parks, but history tells us the process of doing so will likely result in more people being drawn into the racist right and/or antigovernment/patriot organizations; an increase in the overall use of confederate flag imagery across the nation; an increase in the sale of guns; and quite likely, an increase in hate crimes against persons of color, Jews, Muslims and members of the LGBT community.
And for what gain? A symbolic victory that will never find a member of the KKK, Aryan Nations or a skin head lacking the security of their favorite Confederate flag. Such paraphernalia will always be available to those who desire it.
This warning of the potential dire consequences is not meant to imply that we shouldn’t confront our nation’s more serious problems out of fear of a possible violent backlash; just the opposite. We should confront the real and difficult issues of racism, hate groups and guns in more substantive ways than merely assaulting a symbol. We should confront these issues at their core by way of education, economic opportunity, tolerance, forgiveness, peaceful protests, the power of the ballet box and by demanding responsible media coverage that informs rather than inflames. If we fight only a symbolic battle against a piece of cloth then we are destined to have nothing more than a symbolic victory that leads only to symbolic change.
The current state of hate and racism in America demands more than a symbolic gesture. The nine dead innocents in Charleston demand far more than that.
Between 2000 and 2008, the membership of racist organizations including the KKK, skinheads, White Nationalists and neo-Nazis grew at just over 30 percent. After the election of the nation’s first black president in 2008, that growth trend increased significantly.
The number of antigovernment/patriot groups and membership in those groups shrank during the late 1990s following the Oklahoma City Bombing, but sometime around 2005 they once again began to grow. Since the election of Barack Obama, the numbers have swollen. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the number of antigovernment/patriot groups has grown 813 percent in recent years to an all-time high of 1,360 known organizations.
The SPLC also reports that law enforcement has identified at least 50 antigovernment/patriot training camps, at least one of which is being operated by former police officers and military personnel.
The church shooting in Charleston may turn out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, particularly since it came on the heels of all the police shootings and other manner of violent killings of unarmed blacks, which has understandably placed race and violence at the forefront of our collective conscience. But when it comes to acts of violence by hate groups, it was only the latest example in an increasingly violent trend.
Since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 that killed 168 men, women and children and wounded more than 500 others, SPLC reports that there have been 113 attempted and/or carried out racist rampages in the United States. In the 19 years between 1995 and the 2008 election of Barack Obama, there were 63 such acts of violence. Since 2008, there have already been 50 such rampages, including Charleston. In other words, the rate of such racist attacks has doubled since Obama took office.
There has also been a significant increase in the numbers of vigilante border patrollers on the U.S./ Mexican border. These groups are generally associated with the patriot movement and have committed numerous violent acts against undocumented Latinos who have crossed the border.
As for hate crimes in general, the numbers are staggering. According to a 2005 special report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics titled Hate Crimes Reported by Victims and Police, “an annual average of 210,000 hate crime victimizations occurred from July 2000 through December 2003.”
Although a follow-up study has not been done, it is likely that those numbers have also increased significantly since 2008 in response to a black president, the legal victories concerning same sex marriage, increasing tensions over border policies and immigration and the sensationalized media coverage of all the above.
The SPLC website has this to say about this increase in antigovernment/patriot groups: “They’re back. Almost a decade after largely disappearing from public view, right-wing militias, ideologically driven tax defiers and sovereign citizens are appearing in large numbers around the country. … And once-popular militia conspiracy theories are making the rounds again, this time accompanied by nativist theories about secret Mexican plans to “reconquer” the American Southwest. Authorities around the country are reporting a worrying uptick in Patriot activities and propaganda. ‘This is the most significant growth we’ve seen in 10 to 12 years,’ says one. ‘All it’s lacking is a spark. I think it’s only a matter of time before you see threats and violence.’”
If the simple election of a black president has caused such resurgence in violent antigovernment and racist activism, then what might be the missing spark that could push things over the edge? Could it be something purely symbolic such as the current attack on the Confederate flag? History says, “Yes.”
The backlash against the movement to get rid of the Confederate flag has likely already begun. Seven black churches in the South have already burned since the Charleston shooting, most of the fires are still under investigation but it seems more than coincidental. Other evidence can be found in the fact that the flags have become a very hot commodity since the Charleston slaughter.
Despite the decision by the nation’s largest retailers — including the likes of Walmart, eBay, Apple, Sears, Kmart, Google and Amazon — to stop selling Confederate flags and items containing the flag’s imagery, sales have been brisk.
The New York Times reports that Amazon alone was selling some 29,000 items containing the stars and bars including “bikinis, shower curtains, ceramic coasters, cupcake toppers and even a tongue ring.” Even as the company was preparing to shut down its sales of Confederate flags, the Times reported that “Confederate flags jumped to the top of Amazon’s Patio, Lawn and Garden category, with purchases of some items spiking by more than 5,000 percent.”
According to numerous media reports, Apple went so far as to stop the sale of a number of Civil War games containing images of the Confederate flag, which had been available in its iTunes App Store.
At the same time retailers were pulling back, flag manufacturers were also feeling the heat to distance themselves from the church shooting fallout. At least four U.S. manufacturers have now announced they will no longer make the battle flag.
What’s next? Shall we stop selling history books on the Civil War in the name of political correctness?
Of course, all this retail posturing has been met with joy by smaller outlets that are now prospering from their enhanced sale of confederate merchandise. Countries like China, Indonesia and Guatemala will happily pick up the manufacturing slack. It appears that when the dust settles, every person who owned a Confederate flag because they are a racist hatemonger will now own several.
And besides, since flags are simply mirrors reflecting our individual experiences, we might want to start concerning ourselves with other flags, perhaps the one that Pew says 75 percent of us display in some manner.
On this particular point, two well-known purveyors of hate speech in their own right — Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and hyper-conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh — have both weighed in.
According to multiple media sources including the Washington Times, Farrakhan recently told his audience at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. that he didn’t understand the hoopla over the Confederate flag. He went on to say that “We need to put the American flag down. Because we’ve caught as much hell under that as the Confederate flag. … Who are we fighting today? It’s the people that carry the American flag.”
The escalation from Confederate flag to American flag as a symbol of oppression was something Limbaugh was anticipating and more than happy to turn into yet another imaginary bullet fired at his right-wing listeners by the “Obama crowd.”
With regards to the church shooting, Limbaugh told his radio audience the Confederate flag had nothing to do with it. He told them the left was using the tragedy to launch an “all-out assault” on “American culture.” He accused Democrats of using the church shooting to attack “Southern culture, and the South as a whole.” And he concluded by warning, “The next thing that’s gonna happen is somebody’s gonna say the American flag has flown over far more bigotry and racism and homophobia than the Confederate flag, and somebody’s gonna make a move to replace it.”
Replace the American flag? No. That’s just the punch line to keep his paranoid listeners worked up into an antigovernment lather. But as to his prediction that someone would point out “the American flag has flown over far more bigotry and racism and homophobia than the Confederate flag,” on that note, he’s right. Someone will and someone should.
Farrakhan made this point for all the wrong reasons; he, like Limbaugh, makes his living by nurturing anger, fear and hatred. But strip all that away and the truth of what both of these men said is still there: for millions of people here and throughout the world, the American flag no longer reflects “Liberty and Justice for all,” but rather “bigotry and racism and homophobia.”
Donald Trump wasn’t standing in front of the Confederate flag and didn’t have a stars and bars pin in his lapel when he announced his bid for the presidency at the same time claiming that undocumented folks crossing the southern border are rapists and drug smugglers. It was the American flag.
When Ann Coulter goes onto the red, white and blue, American-flagstudded set of Fox News and says things like “someone needs to explain to me why gassing Arabs is such a bad thing,” how does that impact an Arab citizen’s perception of our flag?
When groups opposed to gay marriage, and the LGBT community in general, hold rallies with protest signs that are red, white and blue and the American flag is as prevalent as the hate, what experiences will be mirrored by the site of an American flag later on for members of the LGBT community and its supporters?
When U.S. politicians like Arkansas Representative Tom Cotton show up on flag-decorated posters touting their antigay messages, what does that do to millions of people’s impression of the flag?
This isn’t new. In the 1960s it was “love it or leave it.” Many a person opposed to the Vietnam War learned to take cover when an American flag came their way. Failure to do so could land you in the hospital or worse.
So here we are, once again celebrating the Fourth of July beneath a million American flags. For many this holiday, looking up at those flags will cause them to feel a sense of pride; equality; acceptance; a true appreciation for the many freedoms we have; gratitude for the many who have fought so heroically to create and preserve those freedoms; and gratefulness for the prosperity our country still makes possible. And having such feelings reflected by our flag is a really good thing.
So let’s all try to remember that we share an obligation to ensure that everyone — regardless of race, religion, economic status, nationality or sexual orientation — can look at our flag without feeling fear, exclusion or persecution. Until that is the reality, the Confederate flag and the American flag have way too much in common. But we can fix that if we try, and the effort to do so is the truest form of patriotism — “with Liberty and Justice for all.”