As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
The South’s past and present relationship with the Confederate flag is shameful and horrendous. What it stood for and currently stands for was and is the most un-American movement in American history—a time when half the country wanted to dissolve the United States of America. The memory of the Civil War and the ghost of slavery continues to haunt the South along with the rest of the country, and for this reason alone, this symbol and symbols like it should cease to be on public display and be relegated to historical sites for educational purposes.
Let’s not be mistaken, the above statement should be the primary understanding of Confederate-glorifying images. What is to follow now is a slight direction change. It is about the purpose the Confederate flag serves for white elites. The Confederate flag serves as a portal through which non-Southern white people can project their own guilt of racial bias onto the Southerner. Let me explain.
When a racist attacks someone of a minority, be it police officers murdering an unarmed black man or a racist attacking an Asian American because of some misguided anger over COVID-19, racial topics flood the airwaves and social media. Many brilliant activists and scholars give keen insight about white privilege and the systemic racism that exists in every square inch of this country. Well-meaning white folks feel convicted and ashamed. They want to be an ally to minorities and marginalized people. Invariably at some point a video or article comes up with a call to remove a Confederate statue or flag. This is the moment where a subtle shift clicks into place in the minds of many white people. Well-meaning white folks can now decry these racist symbols (which they are) and “do their part” by demanding these backward communities take down their monuments of hate.
A well-meaning white person may see the Confederate flag and the subconscious will connect the dots from there. The Confederate flag leads to thoughts of the Civil War, which leads to thoughts of slavery, which leads to images of the American South, which lets us off the hook because the subconscious has connected our guilt over institutional racism back to the American South. This is very soothing if we live in overwhelmingly white communities in Suburban Massachusetts or West Michigan. The Southerner has become the scapegoat onto which we project our sins and from whom we demand repentance. We have committed the sin of southering. The othering of the American South.
As people, we have a tendency to identify ourselves with groups. We are likely to form these groups around who is in and who is out or who are like us and who are unlike us. The people who are unlike us become known as others, and others often become the objects of ridicule due to any designating factor not shared by the primary group. What is especially nefarious, though, is that this other status is often assigned based upon perceived differences leading to large groups othering people based upon stereotypes or otherwise misguided assumptions.
Cue entry of the American South, a region with a well-known history of racist atrocities, poor education, and distinct regional pride. The American South fits the bill perfectly to attract the odd looks and snickers of many who want to find someone to feel better than. (Case in point: Being from Tennessee and now living in Michigan, I find otherwise intelligent, accomplished professionals often feel it permissible to correct me on how to pronounce my own name, I assume due to my drawl.)
The South has grown into an influential subculture within the United States and also a culture that carries the stereotypes of being backward, simple-minded, and racist. Its history combined with these stereotypes create a wonderful scapegoat onto which we can off load our collective character flaws.
What is perhaps less known is that it was only days ago that the state of Rhode Island moved to change its official (yet largely unknown) name away from the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, a name literally built upon plantation slave labor. Even more blatantly the city seal of the Village of Whitesboro, N.Y., features a white man subduing a Native American man in a wrestling match. Additionally, 66 years after the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown V. Board of Education, New York and California remain among the most segregated school systems in the United States.
Yes, the truth remains that the Confederate flag is a racist symbol and should be taken down. What might come as a surprise is that many Southerners will agree, only adding, “and if you want to see where racism really exists today, let’s look in a mirror together.” This is the moment of conviction, and many well-meaning white folks will dismissively scoff at this because we don’t want to believe we are part of the problem. We need the Southerner to be the racist so we can be innocent.
In Matt. 7:3, Jesus asks us, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Even though I would say that the Confederate flag is much more than a mere speck of sawdust, Christ invites us to do the difficult work of self-examination before we seek to examine the sins of another. As we are told by the prophet Isaiah, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). We owe it to minority children of God, our brothers and sisters, to repent from our bias even if we cannot see it in ourselves. Doing the hard work of examining our feelings, motives, opinions, and assumptions is a vital first step in helping all of God’s children participate in God’s shalom.