Civil Rights

The Confederate flag debate needs a patriotism litmus test

Confederate Flag, MoveOn, Charleston
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A friendly note to all those good fam out there fighting the good fight and climbing flag poles to finally set the record straight on Confederate symbols: stop talking about slavery and oppression.

That statement above is a bit brusque and abrupt; I get it. It’s probably doing more than raising a few brows — bubbles are bursting, dreams of Glory-style charges are dashed and anger is brewing on the Sell-Out Alert network. It’s not like that, though. Here’s the thing — hear this out:

What you really need is a True Patriot Litmus Test.

{mosads}When talking about or vilifying everything the Confederate battle flag stands for, we might be having the correct historical discussion. “What exactly is the tradition of the Confederate battle flag that we’re supporting?” rightly posed Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) on the House floor Thursday. “Is it slavery, rape, kidnap, treason, genocide or all of the above?”

“White supremacists killed black people, they killed white people who aided black people and they flew the rebel flag as their emblem,” overnight superheroine Bree Newsome hard-charged in a non-stop stream of tweets.

Granted, it’s frustrating. Just when Capitol Hill should be getting the people’s business done (since, frankly, it isn’t), here comes the California congressman stupidly standing in for his Southern Republican friends with what amounted to a poorly executed poison amendment in a spending bill. Or, just as you thought ripping it off South Carolina state grounds would settle the issue for good, here comes CNN with a poll showing nearly 60 percent of Americans believe the flag is Southern pride.

“Don’t Republicans understand that the Confederate battle flag is an insult to 40 million African-Americans and to many other fair-minded Americans?” asked Congressional Black Caucus Chair Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.).

Probably not, since most whites, according to polls, don’t understand — or would really rather not understand. So, tragically, we’re probably having the wrong political conversation if we’re expecting any immediate nationwide teachable moment or mass cultural conversion along the Bible Belt.

While the nation desperately needs a refresh on its ugly plantation past, it’s just — sadly — not hearing that when we talk about the rebel flag. Say “slavery” or “oppression” again, and you’ll get the “here-they-go-again” eye roll from exasperated coworkers, neighbors and soccer moms (if you dare raise it). Scream “white supremacy” into the feed and you’re bound to get angrily trolled by conservative talk-show host recruits.

So, what’s the problem? First: Historical illiteracy is at an all time high. A recent American Council of Trustees and Alumni survey found that “only half the American public could correctly identify when the Civil War took place and just 18 [percent] knew the Emancipation Proclamation meant slaves were free in areas still in rebellion.” Just 28 percent of college graduates even knew what the Emancipation Proclamation was supposed to do.

Which means the current level of conversation is probably a bit too sophisticated and outright confusing for most. We’re expecting folks who barely passed Social Studies to sympathize with victims of brutal systematic racism over the past several hundred years. That’s not happening anytime soon. And it partly explains the ridiculously high number of Americans who think the rebel flag is a stick toy you wave around at the county fair while dancing to the Soggy Bottom Boys.

Second: Americans hate talking about race or even mentioning the fact racism exists. A March YouGov poll, not surprisingly, found 57 percent of whites believing we talk about race “too much” — exactly matching the number who think the rebel flag is just a “Dukes of Hazzard” prop, and compared to only 18 percent who felt we didn’t talk it about enough. (Disclaimer: I watched the “Dukes” religiously as a kid. There it is). So, before they even started reading this piece, there were probably countless dozens of Caucasian readers who were like “Aww, no, c’mon man, please, not this stuff again.”

Third: It’s not such a surprise either when a June 2014 YouGov poll showed 68 percent of Americans completely opposed to the idea of reparations for the descendants of African slaves. People reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s legendary pro-reparations piece in The Atlantic went apoplectic at even the thought of it, much less the idea that we’d even consider having national flashback gripe sessions over slavery. With a black president in full view, few are ready to go there.

So how do you fix that?

The interesting thing is that we find just as many Americans considering themselves “patriotic” as the number of Americans who consider the rebel flag a symbol of Southern heritage. National Review‘s Ramesh Ponnuru fleshed this out while examining various patriotism polls over the past several years, citing Gallup’s June 2013 survey where 71 percent of Republicans were “extremely proud” of the United States — almost in line with the percentage of Republicans (63 percent) who believe the rebel flag is just innocent whistling Dixiedom. Pew Research also noticed that, too, with 72 percent of “steadfast conservatives” admitting that they “often feel proud to be American.”

But, that’s where rebel flag opponents could be hitting rebel flag apologists the hardest: their patriotic hypocrisy. It’s what pollsters should also ask shortly after assessing the stand of respondents on what they believe is Southern heritage paraphernalia. Because, ultimately, those who support the rebel flag can’t have it both ways. Some of the same House Republicans who are quick to question the post-9/11 patriotism of celebrities or lambast a sitting president for not wearing U.S. flag pins can’t, on the other hand, fight to uphold federally sanctioned displays of the Confederacy when the latter was a symbol of anti-government insurgency. Stones are being thrown from Southern glass houses if folks are pressed to hold on to symbols of national treason that almost destroyed these United States, yet quickly criticize others for not wearing red, white and blue on their sleeve.

This is not two nations sharing space. It’s one nation indivisible. The Confederacy was as violently anti-American as anything else we’ve ever seen in our national history; it was responsible for the deaths of nearly 800,000 people for five long, warring years. And we’re now at that stage in the conversation where it’s appropriate to ask: Which one is it? Are you truly an American patriot? Or is that all for show while you go home to sleep under stars and bars bedsheets? Are you perpetrating? That’s what this debate should focus on. That’s where this movement can hit a treasonous legacy where it hurts. That’s where we can truly force those who’ve signed on to Confederate nostalgia to reassess and finally choose whether they want to be an American — or not.

Ellison is a veteran political strategist and contributing editor for The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune, chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine, Sunday Washington insider for WDAS-FM (Philadephia) and a panelist on MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews.” Follow him on Twitter @ellisonreport.

Tags Civil War Confederacy Confederate flag Emancipation Proclamation G.K. Butterfield Hakeem Jeffries
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