You know those moments when someone makes an argument that is so incoherent you don’t even know how to respond? That’s basically how I feel right now about Black people defending the Confederate flag. Still, I’m going to do my best explaining why their platform on this issue is utter nonsense and why they need to change their stance on it—real quick.
I do not care if your great, great, great, great grandfather was a cook for the Confederacy in the Civil War. I do not care if White people who wave the flag are kind to you when you walk past them in the street. The Confederate flag is an emblem of racism and hate in any and every context. It is impossible for us to use or celebrate the flag without blatantly romanticizing/misinterpreting the worst moments of our nation’s history, or without disregarding the struggles Black people have endured to fight for our freedom since the slavery era.
I went numb watching the videos of Karen Cooper and Byron Thomas defending their support of the Confederate flag in the wake of the horrific massacre at Emanuel AME Church. Cooper, a native of New York and former member of the Nation of Islam, explained that she moved to the South as an adult and became a “flagger” once she befriended local whites that had Confederate ancestors. She explained that she is a supporter of the Tea Party, and felt that Southern Whites and Blacks were more unified and friendly towards one another than in the North.
Thomas, a student at the University of South Carolina, explained that because one of his ancestors worked for the Confederacy, he proudly displays the flag in his apartment despite how uncomfortable it makes his guests. He also made the absurd argument that he is proud of the Confederacy and supports the flag because the Confederacy paid its Black soldiers for fighting in the war. Then he had the audacity to say that Dylann Roof was entitled to use the flag however he wanted to, and that he (Thomas) uses the flag for “other reasons.”
What exactly were these “other reasons” Thomas was referring to? I recognize that White people in the South have a custom of placing Confederate flags at burial sites of their ancestors and at reunions for war veterans among various other, more intimidating uses of the flag. But what could he possibly be using the flag for other than to decorate his home with an item that called for the enslavement of Black people?
Cooper also had me scratching my head. It appears to be lost on her that White Southern people in her neighborhood being polite to her does not mean that they actually believe she’s equal to them. It just means that there is something about her presence that is non-threatening and that they’re willing to tolerate her more than the few other Black people they interact with. More than that, friendly interactions between White and Black people do not undo the institutionalized racism that has long divided us. I’m still recovering from the fact that during her clip in a documentary series about the Confederate flag, Cooper miraculously and proudly said the words: “I believe that slavery is a choice.” I’ll respond to that line by appropriating one of Michael Eric Dyson’s most famous arguments—sometimes a Black person is the best mouthpiece for White supremacy. Again, her arguments on this are utter nonsense; to be enslaved inherently means being forced to do something against one’s will.
I do respect Cooper’s political beliefs that government should have limited political power as championed by the Tea Party. But I don’t think that means she has to align herself with a group that embraces White supremacy in its ideology to pursue the government structure that she wants. There’s a reason why most of Coopers’ connections to other flaggers/Tea Partiers are with people who had ancestors that identified as Confederates during the slavery era. There is a legacy there. How can Cooper affiliate with conservative, racist Whites because she does not want a government that controls her life—but she then supports a school of thought that championed enslaving her own people. The last time I checked, enslaving people equals controlling one’s actions on how one lives, where one lives and whether one lives at all.
I could go on and on about the painful irony of Blacks like Cooper and Thomas supporting the Confederate flag despite its racist past, but I think some hard facts on how and why the flag was conceived will help bring my point home. (Special thanks to my girl Libby Nelson at Vox for her fabulous, thorough storytelling on the Confederate flag’s history.) Regardless of how much supporters of the flag will shy away from this point, the very reason why the Confederacy was founded was to uphold the institution of slavery. This is explicitly stated in documents like Mississippi’s statement of secession:”Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.” The flag has frequently used to promote White supremacist propaganda. Furthermore, the very design of the flag refers to the Confederates’ desire to expand slavery from the United States into Latin America. Following the atrocities committed against Black people before and immediately after the Civil War, during Reconstruction, and the early 20th Century, the Confederate flag became popularized in White Southern culture from the 1950s and on as the government led a more aggressive effort to secure the civil rights of Black people from the Civil Rights era. So as the Confederate flag was being used to scare those rallying for the cause of Black, marginalized people (like integration and voters rights), Whites clung to the flag more fiercely from feeling threatened by Blacks’ gains in society.
I wish Cooper and Thomas were as outspoken about the Black Lives Matter movement as they were about the horribly racist flag they’re so eager to wear and wave in the air. But I suppose that would be asking too much. After all, that would mean getting them to realize that their very existence, their will to live as a free black men and woman in America, completely flies in the face of what the Confederacy stands for (today and back in 1862).
Thomas referenced entitlement to use the flag however one pleases during his appearance on CNN as if it were equal to freedom. But the very issue here is White people’s historic entitlement to erase people of color from the planet. As we speak, the KKK is preparing to protest on behalf of the Confederate flag now that South Carolina lawmakers are deciding whether or not to remove it from Capitol grounds. Would Thomas and Cooper march alongside the KKK in protest if they were given the opportunity to? Of course, freedom of speech would allow them to do this, but that does not mean it is right.
Just by walking the street and posing for pictures with this flag, Cooper and Thomas (as well as the many other Black people out there who share their beliefs) undermine the immense ways in which slaves were abused and killed simply for being Black. We should not and cannot deride our slave ancestors for living through their torment. We have to celebrate them for doing so. Unlike what Cooper suggests during her interview, slavery didn’t just “happen.” It was enforced by White people who consciously and willfully built this institution that is still alive and well around the world to disempower and retard the growth of Black people in American society. We’re still living with the effects of slavery—our imbalanced rates of Black people being stuck in the lower class or stuck without viable employment opportunities, hair politics, beauty politics, sexual politics, the stigmas that influence police brutality. These are issues that are deeply ingrained in our nation’s legacy and we all know that they’re not going away anytime soon. But the least we could all do for ourselves is be up front about what symbols of these racial inequalities represent in our country, and stop glorifying them into something they are not.
Big ups to Bree Newsome for her powerful statement on why she banded with her fellow citizens to take justice in her own hands by taking down the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s Capitol Grounds. Read her beautiful essay here.