The debate surrounding the Confederate flag, which the Southern states assumed as their banner when they refused to end slavery during the American Civil War from 1861-1865, has been an object of recurring controversy. However, it has come this time with the huge question that has haunted American society since the war: Is America still a hostage of its first and most grave sin — slavery?
The current debate engulfing South Carolina — and affecting other states in the American South — surrounds the need to remove the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina Statehouse. This controversy was triggered by the Charleston church massacre of nine black Americans at the hands of a young white man who habitually waved the Confederate flag and spread racist messages on his personal website. This issue has particular importance in South Carolina, the cradle of the Civil War: The designer of the Confederate flag, William Porcher Miles, was a native of the state and ironically became the mayor of Charleston, the site of the recent massacre.
The controversy the public is facing stems from the large disparity in the different perceptions of the flag and what it represents. That red background lined with a blue cross, known as the cross of Saint Andrew, with white stars in the middle which signify the states of the Confederacy, is seen by a majority of whites as a symbol of pride, dignity and a testament to the struggle of their ancestors. As for the blacks — and some whites — they see the flag as a symbol of slavery, extremism and racism, especially when more than 500 racist organizations, the most famous being the Ku Klux Klan, have adopted the banner.
Those who advocate keeping the flag defend their position by insisting that it is a part of history that can’t be denied, and that it reflects “Southern pride.” To them, the flag is a tribute to the hundreds of thousands who lost their lives in the call of duty. As a white native of South Carolina says, the flag is “a symbol of family and my ancestors who defended the state from invasion. It was about standing up to a central government.”
On the other hand, demands in many Southern states to remove the flag from government facilities has confirmed that continuing to fly it inculcates hatred in the hearts of citizens, as it is extremely offensive to blacks. While they acknowledge it is a part of history that cannot be erased, they believe that its proper place is in museums or history books. Philip Gunn, Mississippi’s speaker of the House, summed up this idea by stating, “We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us.” It is worth mentioning here that Mississippi voted to keep the Confederate flag in 2001, with two-thirds of the state voting in favor.
However, the question at the heart of this controversy is whether removing the flag is enough to eradicate the racism rooted in the United States. American President Barack Obama went even further than that, saying that the legacy of slavery and discrimination is still part of the DNA of the American people.
The answer to this question is simple and predictable; it is negative.
For while it cannot be denied that American society has come a long way to get away from its racist past, culminating with the election of the first black president in 2008, the reality is that the ghosts of the past still haunt the present and threaten the future. This painful reality, experienced by black citizens on a daily basis, who are exposed to various gradations of injustice, inequality and systemic racial discrimination, will not change immediately by hiding the Confederate flag.
Official statistics suggest that the situation of black citizens continues to deteriorate despite the presence of one of them in the most important office. The gap in income between whites and blacks has not changed, and there is obvious rising unemployment among blacks. The most serious statistic, which is clearly evident in the events recurring over the past months, is that black citizens are 20 times more likely to be shot by the police than white citizens.
According to a report by the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of black citizens are likely to experience police injustice. As the report revealed, more than half of black citizens acknowledge being subjected to discrimination in courts, the workplace, school, shops and restaurants.
It was Noam Chomsky, expert linguist and famous American thinker, who drew attention to the racism inherent in the “institutions of American life,” and that what sustains and enables it is what he describes as “intentional ignorance” of inconvenient truths. Chomsky explained in an interview with The New York Times that the harsh facts of American racism, the way it operates and interacts, are rarely acknowledged, leading to a cover up of the truth and the creation of an illusion.
Most analysts are in line with Chomsky in that they see manifestations of blatant racism, such as the separation of whites and blacks in public places. And while the use of the N-word may have disappeared, other hatred lives on in hearts and minds. Therefore, no amount of rhetoric about freedom, justice, equal opportunity or civil rights legislation will help to erase racism. Removing the Confederate flag will not improve the living conditions of blacks, nor change society’s perception of them.