Staley: The Confederate Flag Debate (Unreduced)
Editors: The author, an adjunct scholar of the foundation and a native of the Midwest, recently moved to Florida, where he teaches social entrepreneurship and conflict resolution. (790 words).
by Sam Staley, Ph.D.
I have avoided talking about the Confederate battle-flag debate because I figured I had nothing to add, and it was a lose-lose situation. Then I read this article from USA Today reporting on their poll showing that Americans are “split” on what it symbolizes and lamenting how polarized the public is. But this polling is exactly the kind of thing that creates the polarization that leads to gridlock on important social and policy issues.
It’s not the polling per se but the reductionist way the questions are designed and posed, setting up false choices that pit disparate but legitimate values against each other. Consensus can never be forged when this is done (as I interactively show my Florida State University students in my class on conflict resolution in land use and urban planning).
Take this poll on the Confederate battle flag as an example. The question was: Is the Confederate flag a symbol of racism or a symbol of Southern history and heritage? The results should not be surprising: 42 percent said it was a racist symbol and 42 percent said that it was a symbol of Southern history and heritage. That’s because the flag is both and the two issues are independent because contemporary supporters believe the flag stands for different things. I don’t know one modern-day southerner who believes that slavery is or was justified. But they do believe the South is disparaged culturally and politically in the U.S., and they also believe the Old South was about much more than slavery. They also see the Civil War through the prism of protecting state sovereignty and dignity, a view consistent with a reading of the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the debates at the Founding.
Of course, the Civil War was more than protecting state sovereignty. It wasn’t just that the South was on the wrong side of history. Slavery was an inherently evil institution and inconsistent with the most fundamental principles of this nation’s founding. As long as it continued, something like the Civil War was inevitable as the nation matured into its principles.
But that doesn’t dismiss the fact that, for many contemporary southerners, the flag is not seen as a racist symbol — most don’t harbor racist attitudes or beliefs, are deeply embarrassed by the institution of slavery and the century of terrorism inflicted on minorities during the Jim Crow era. (Lynyrd Skynyrd and other Southern rock bands flew the Confederate flag at concerts in the 1970s and 1980s, but they were not promoting or condoning racism; in fact, their attitudes were tolerant and inclusive.)
At the same time, the flag is a racist symbol because the South chose to fight to protect its sovereignty literally on the backs of millions of black slaves and the marginalization of free blacks in Southern society. This was the worst kind of slavery (yes, there are different kinds of slavery) because it was deeply racist, paternalistic and institutionally dehumanizing. Southerners have to own this part of their heritage; they can’t pick and choose based on contemporary political convenience if heritage and history is their argument in support of the flag.
So, if we really want to develop meaningful dialogue on how to deal with the Confederate flag, let’s stop ignoring the complexities of history and have a real discussion on the values that matter. The Confederate battle flag is a symbol with powerful meanings, but let’s not pretend those meanings are the same to every person, and that the “win” is the triumph of one group over another. That, again, is a reductionist and redistributionist approach that divides rather than unites.
Instead, let’s recognize the legitimate values on both sides and work from there: For a large number of Americans, the flag represents support for a vile and evil institution that has handicapped this nation from its founding. For another large group of Americans, the flag represents regional pride and independence (and not racism).
Do Southerners really want to display a symbol that is so reviled by such a large group of fellow Americans who believe in individual freedom and self-determination? Do critics of the flag really want to marginalize, dismiss and trivialize people because they believe in independence, self-determination and the desire to be validated for their legitimate contributions to society?
I actually don’t think Americans are that divided on the Confederate battle flag, but we won’t find consensus using an us-versus-them framework. The two sides are talking past each other, and a resolution will be found only when they meet each other from a position of mutual respect and a sincere attempt to understand the opposite position. Let’s start from the truth of the values as they define them — not how we wish to see them — and work from there.
Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University.