Athenae and I don’t always agree on the issues of the day, but we *do* agree on the current debate about the Confederate battle flag. We both think it should be removed from public buildings, but do NOT think that it should be the focus of the national discussion after the domestic terrorist attack in Charleston:
I get frustrated when politicians are pressed to take a stand on things like this, because we have a finite number of hours in the day and if a presidential candidate spends all of them equivocating about a flag instead of being made to explain how his policies will improve the lives of poor minorities, we have spent a day doing absolutely nothing.
Symbols matter. I’m a writer. I would never say they don’t. But the flag doesn’t just make black people feel bad. It doesn’t just signify to black people that they’re conquered and that white people are the conquerors.
It is the public face of all the ways in which white people do treat black people like they’re still owned.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m just as interested in the Confederate battle flag discussion as your average fog of history guy, but I don’t think it should become a central focus of national politics. It’s mildly interesting to hear what various candidates think and to watch them squirm but I’d rather hear what they’d do to combat racism in our daily lives, especially economic racism.
Nikki Haley has come out in favor of removing the flag from the state capitol grounds in Columbia. That’s fine and dandy but it merely reflects a politician blowing with the wind; the prevailing breeze is from the “remove the damn flag” direction. I am more interested in learning whether she supports the hate crimes legislation that was just proposed by two Democratic legislators. I know she’s against many things that would make the lives of poor black folks better from the ACA to unionization and on and on and on. Haley is a Koch Brothers Republican just like Scott Walker. The main reason she’s jumped on the anti-flag bandwagon is that overt references to the Confederate past are bad for business. There you have it in a wingnutshell.
The other thing about Gov. Haley’s speech that people have glossed over was its extensive use of code words such as “heritage and pride.” Her real position is that the flag has been hijacked by mean old racists and should be removed for that reason. Ta-Nehisi Coates demurs:
This afternoon, in announcing her support for removing the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley asserted that killer Dylann Roof had “a sick and twisted view of the flag” which did not reflect “the people in our state who respect and in many ways revere it.” If the governor meant that very few of the flag’s supporters believe in mass murder, she is surely right. But on the question of whose view of the Confederate Flag is more twisted, she is almost certainly wrong.
Roof’s belief that black life had no purpose beyond subjugation is “sick and twisted” in the exact same manner as the beliefs of those who created the Confederate flag were “sick and twisted.” The Confederate flag is directly tied to the Confederate cause, and the Confederate cause was white supremacy. This claim is not the result of revisionism. It does not require reading between the lines. It is the plain meaning of the words of those who bore the Confederate flag across history. These words must never be forgotten. Over the next few months the word “heritage” will be repeatedly invoked. It would be derelict to not examine the exact contents of that heritage.
Coates goes into glorious detail in support of his thesis that the Confederate battle flag, in any and all permutations, is an emblem of racism, white supremacy, and a war that was fought to preserve slavery. Dylann Roof and other neo-Confederate extremists take this legacy literally instead of using slick code words and dog whistles such as “heritage and pride.” The problem with political dog whistling is that sometimes the dog has a gun and massacres people in a church.
Back to symbolism mania: actually, it’s more like a virus, which is spreading throughout the former Confederate states. I remain skeptical that the Mississippi flag will change now that Governor Phil Bryant has mashed on the brakes at the behest of the Godfather of Mississippi politics, Haley the Barbour of Yazoo.
Here in New Orleans, there are many streets, school names, and statues honoring the so-called heroes of the so-called lost cause. There’s a renewed call for their removal or changes to their names as detailed in a front page story in the Advocate. The most obnoxious memorial to me is the one for Jefferson Davis on-where else?-Jefferson Davis Parkway, which is one of the main drags of Mid-City New Orleans.
The cult of Jeff Davis has always annoyed me: he was an intemperate, inept politician who should be scorned as a Southern fried Buchanan or W. Now that I think of it, I’m glad the CSA had such bad leadership. I’d love for that monument to be removed from its prominent perch at the corner of Canal Street. Changing the street name, however, would be a nightmare for folks who live on it so I’m not sure what should be done there. I, for one, would not want that man’s name as a part of my address but I’d let the business owners and residents of that very long street decide.
The most prominent Confederate monument in New Orleans is the huge statue of Robert E. Lee at-where else?-Lee Circle, which was originally Tivoli Circle. It’s on St. Charles Avenue and visible to tourists as they ride on the streetcar. That means its days are numbered. City Hall quakes in fear at the mere thought of bad touron publicity.
I would prefer that any replacement monuments or new street names honor heroes of the anti-white supremacy/segregation struggles; to do otherwise is to provide ammunition to those who say this is a Soviet-style attempt to erase inconvenient or unfashionable historical facts. That’s why I think Lee Circle should become Homer Plessy Circle, named for the 1890’s Civil Rights pioneer. A fitting replacement for the Davis monument would be a statue commemorating PBS Pinchback, the lone black Governor in Gret Stet history. He was the hero of a lost cause: the Reconstruction era struggle for equal rights. A much nobler cause than that espoused by Jefferson Davis.
Back to the post title. Republicans like Gov. Haley want a pat on the back for grudgingly doing the right thing. Those who are bestowing fulsome praise on Haley should wake up and smell the coffee. Coffee and cookies may go together but the GOP shouldn’t get a cookie for talking about removing Confederate symbols or even for doing so. Give them a cookie when they do something substantive such as protecting their black constituents from police violence. That’s something worthy of words like heritage and pride. The rest is just talk. Nobody should ever get a cookie for saying the right things. Do something and we’ll talk about it then.
UPDATE: New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu is calling for the removal of the Lee statue. Mitch gets a cookie.