The Confederate Flag: Oppression Or Distraction? 


My Dear Readers,

The recent slaughter of nine African Americans bible study at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC has devastated the African-American community and shocked the nation.   In response, national and state leaders have called for the removal of the Confederate flag or emblems containing the Confederate flag from state and local government buildings.

This week, I am going to explore the possible reasons as to why both the African-American community and the white majority have focused on this, an issue that has been debated for over 150 years.

Currently there are debates, legislation, and pitched battles on whether to remove the Confederate flag, which is a symbol of racism and hatred for some, and for others, a symbol that honors their fallen ancestors who stood for states’ rights vs. federal law and fought for a cause they believed was the right one.

In the midst of this conversation, Brittany “Bree” Newsome, a Columbia, SC black female activist, was arrested for climbing the 30-foot flagpole at the South Carolina state capitol building, and removing the Confederate flag that flies there.

Opponents of the flag, including celebrities, politicians and civil rights activists, used social media to applaud Newsome for her actions.  The filmmaker Michael Moore has offered to pay her legal fees, an advocacy group has launched an online petition calling for the legal charges to be dropped and an online fundraiser has been set up to pay for ongoing legal fees, as the intent is to pursue this issue all the way to the US Supreme Court.

It is without doubt that both trials—that of Dylann Roof, who has been photographed flying the Confederate flag as a symbol of his white supremacist beliefs, for the church shooting in Charleston, and that of Bree Newsome for taking down the Confederate Flag in Columbia, will captivate the nation.

However, is the most effective response to the church shooting and the surfacing of violent white supremacists really about the Confederate flag?  If the flag truly is the issue, then why is it being raised now? The Confederate flag, following the ending of the Civil War, has stood over many southern state capitals for 150 years, and for 150 years African-Americans have viewed it as remnant of slavery, segregation, racism, oppression and discrimination.

For those same 150 years, the majority has either remained silent, or voted in referendums to keep the flag as a symbol of what they stand for.  Retailers have realized sales of hundreds of millions of dollars for carrying merchandise displaying the countless ways the Confederate flag has been displayed.

During this time, the US Supreme Court in 1896 in the landmarked case of Plessy v. Ferguson upheld that segregated institutions were legal.  This ruling was a death blow to the aspirations of millions of recently freed slaves, ensuring segregated institutions and activities including schools, restaurants, water fountains, movie theaters, public transportation, hospitals and cemeteries.

During this time, state governments passed numerous “Jim Crow” laws further eroding the civil liberties of African-Americans.  During the 150 years following the ending of the Civil War, thousands of African-Americans were lynched by the Ku Klux Klan, and the federal government, under multiple presidential administrations, including those of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, ignored the pleas of African-Americans to pass anti-lynching laws or bestow executive orders protecting black citizens.

For many decades, the white majority in the North has pointed the finger towards their Southern brethren with distaste regarding the negative treatment by southern whites of African-Americans.  However, where the Southern white majority was clearly vocal in their segregation and their need to control African-Americans, specifically males, the Northern white majority simply sat on its hands.  Surveys taken in 1943 show that 96% of Southerners and 85% of Northerners supported segregation.

So since this system has been maintained and supported by the silence of the white majority for so many years, why is there so much sudden interest in removing the Confederate flag?

The same question applies to African-Americans.  Why are we seeking to have the flag removed?  Following the civil rights movement of the 1960’s in which African-Americans achieved “equality,” freedom in the form of “integration,” we have tolerated the flying of the Confederate flag over state capitols.

Yes, African-Americans have marched, boycotted, and sought legislation to remove the flag and in most situations, these attempts have failed.  African-Americans have continued to participate in legislative, judicial and governmental processes in the same states in which the Confederate flag continues to be flown.

We continue to send our children to state universities where the flag is flown.  African-American faculty and students continue to teach at and seek admission to institutions where their Presidents are active members and supporters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

“Saying the flag isn’t about slavery is like saying the swastika isn’t part of the holocaust.  It is a symbol of white supremacy, hatred and oppression—that’s way it’s used by the Ku Klux Klan and skinhead groups,” says Lonnie Randolph, the head of the Columbia (SC) chapter of the NAACP.

One could say that this tolerance of the flag comes from many of the following causes:

  • Other than the knowledge of being descendents of slaves, very few African-Americans have knowledge of collective history of slavery and segregation.
  • There is no collective teaching of African-American history within the community, and as a result, African-American communities depend on a covertly racist educational system to educate their children about their history.
  • African-Americans are unwilling to talk openly among themselves about slavery and segregation and consequently are unable to resolve the internalized despair of historical trauma.

Historical trauma is best described as the intergenerational transmission of responses to cumulative massive trauma associated with historical events that affects a given culture, group, country, religion, or ethnicity.

The area in which African-Americans differ from other traumatized groups such as Jewish people is that all African-Americans are descendents of people who were traumatized by slavery, so it is safe to say that all African-Americans have unresolved issues of historical trauma due to being descendents of slaves and the ramifications of segregation.  Both of these systems were reinforced with violence (lynching, beatings) or threats of violence (burning of crosses).

Concluding Words

The white majority lives with the knowledge of what their ancestors as a group (not individually) did in both the maintenance and expansion of both slavery and segregation.  Striking out at the Confederate flag could be a form of atonement for what was done by their ancestors and the silence they have maintained to this present day.  They may obtain temporary relief, but the traumatic wound remains.

African-Americans are, in a way, utilizing this event as an opportunity to strike out at what they see as a symbol of racism, oppression and suffering.  Like the white majority, they too may feel temporary relief, but their traumatic wounds will also remain.

There are several ways in which a sense of healing can begin and the psychological wound can begin to close.  Follow the model as set by the Jewish community in their journey of healing from the Holocaust:

  • The African-American community MUST assume responsibility for teaching of its children the history of slavery and segregation. This responsibility cannot be delegated to the public school system.
  • The white majority MUST want to enter into a dialogue within its own communities, take ownership and responsibility for their silence, and strive to heal the vestiges of slavery and segregation.
  • Both communities MUST want to enter into ongoing dialogue on a local format and work through the painful discussions of both slavery and segregation. Such discussions may be modeled after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission utilized by South Africa following the abolition of apartheid.

Bree Newsome smiled as she was led away in handcuffs, even though the symbol of hatred, racism and oppression she took down was placed back on the flagpole less than 45 minutes after she took it down.

Following the attack on Emanuel AME Church in Charleston where nine lives were taken, three black churches in North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina have been burnt to the ground in the last five days, all due to arson.  In addition, on 6/24/15, three police officers of the Baltimore County Police Department shot and killed an unarmed black man.  They cited being in fear for their lives, whereas no weapon has been found.

So while unarmed black males of various ages from children to adults continue to be killed by law enforcement throughout the United States, we choose to be distracted by a flag which has been flying for 150 years or focused on the reality that black men are being hunted, shot and killed with the approval of a fearful society.

That symbol of racism, hatred and oppression must not be prioritize over the shooting and/or killing of black males by some form of law enforcement every 28 hours in the United States.

Not all ethnic minorities are confronted on a daily basis with the threat of death or injury to their physical well-being.  In addition, the trauma and emotional abusiveness of racism is due to chronic, systematic and invisible assaults on the personhoods of ethnic minorities that are just as harmful to the human psyche as a single catastrophic event.”

Until the next crossroads…the journey continues…


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