The suddenly toxic confederate flag

In a previous post, I expressed some pessimism that southern states would disassociate themselves from the confederate flag, pointing out that the determination of fans and owners of the Cleveland Indians baseball team to retain their racist mascot in the face of opprobrium shows the strength that symbols have on people. If a baseball mascot could not be gotten rid of, what are the chances of doing so for a flag in a nation that fetishizes flags?

But it seems like I was wrong. The confederate flag has suddenly become so toxic that even Republican politicians in the south are now calling for its removal from all places that might signify official endorsement.

The Confederate battle flag planted in the ground outside the statehouse in South Carolina has been protected by a state law since 2000 that says it must remain hoisted at 30 feet in perpetuity. Perpetuity, it turns out, might end next week.

State legislators introduced a bill on Tuesday to reverse the old law and remove the flag, following days of impassioned protests outside the capitol by thousands of citizens galvanized by the killing a week earlier of nine African Americans inside the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston.

Decades of resistance to retiring the emblem, which has long been held up in the south as a symbol of regional pride and reverence for fallen Confederate soldiers, suddenly seemed to disappear this week in revulsion at pictures posted online of the alleged church killer, Dylann Roof, with the flag.

This feeling was not restricted to South Carolina. The killings have sparked a quickly expanding movement to abolish the flag symbol across the states of the old south, which fought unsuccessfully to leave the United States in the civil war of 1861-65.

Multiple states have acted to remove the flag from official use, while retailers have announced bans on its sale and elected officials have spoken openly against it for the first time in memory.

More importantly in a nation that views market forces as indicating the will of the people, Walmart, Amazon, and Etsy have said they will no longer sell merchandise with the confederate flag on them and one of the biggest flag makers in the country says it will no longer make them. NASCAR has also piled on.

Of course, the dead-enders will cling to their flag to the bitter end, even more closely than ever as they feel themselves besieged by public disapproval and there is nothing that can be done about it, just as nothing can be done about those who proudly associate themselves with the swastika.

One should remember that the flag is just a symbol of deeper underlying problems and those remain unaddressed. Jon Stewart points out that Fox News and others who pander to the gun lobby and subtly feed the narrative that racism no longer exists are now in full-blown attack mode, trying to shift attention away from the roles played by racism and the easy access to guns in the Charleston massacre. They have some success with this strategy of delay and deny in the past. After all, recall that even the Newtown massacre of 20 elementary school children and 6 adults in 2012 did not result in any meaningful reform of gun laws.

Larry Wilmore also had something to say about the flag

He also gave some interesting facts about the flag that I was not aware of before.

(These clips aired on June 22, 2015. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Nightly Show outside the US, please see this earlier post. If the videos autoplay, please see here for a diagnosis and possible solutions.)


  1. Sean Boyd says

    I can’t remember where I encountered this, but I think it’s a good point: the flag banning push is a distraction. The GOP in SC and elsewhere can pass a few token laws taking the flag out of public areas without needing to address the real problems of systemic racism and death binkies that you identified at the end of the OP. It lets the GOP pat themselves on the back for taking bold, decisive steps to end racism as they know it.

    As far as southern states abandoning the flag…there’s a quote that I’ve seen attributed to Steve Martin:

    If you’ve got a dollar and you spend twenty-nine cents on a loaf of bread, you’ve got seventy-one cents left. But if you’ve got 17 grand and you spend twenty-nine cents on a loaf of bread, you’ve still got seventeen grand.

    There’s a math lesson for you.

    Same with the flag in SC: take the one in the capitol away from the million(?) that exist in some form around the state, and what difference have you really made? A million minus one is still a million, more or less.

  2. says

    @ #1,

    I agree. Many bloggers have started to point out that the mainstream media has latched on to the discussion of the flag rather than report on the terrorist Roof or the disparity in his treatment compared to unarmed black people.

  3. Sean (I am not an imposter) says

    Now if we could just do the same for the British and Israeli flags, two nations with far more evil to their account than the Confederacy.

  4. busterggi says

    Guns (paranoia), bibles (theocracy) & the Confederate flag (racism) -- symbols of the core of the GOP.

  5. doublereed says

    Honestly, I’m rather confused how the shooting got people to start talking about the flag in the first place. Yea, the guy is clearly influenced by neoconfederates, but seems like a leap. I mean, I’m glad it’s being taken down, but the issue here is right-wing domestic terrorism, not systemic and institutional racism.

    I get they’re related, but how exactly did the conversation shift like that?

  6. Mano Singham says


    I agree that it is hard to see a direct connection apart from the fact that the killer gloried in the flag but sudden shifts in the zeitgeist like this are usually because an issue (like the flag) has been simmering for a long time just below the surface and all it takes is for a related event to suddenly bring it to the boil.

    But while you are right that while domestic terrorism still exists, moves like removing the flag tends to marginalize hardcore racists and that is not a bad thing.

  7. Mano Singham says


    I agree that it is a small step but it is not insignificant. The more that symbols of racism are eliminated from the pubic square, the more marginalized its advocates become.

  8. Sean (I am not an imposter) says

    Excellent article on the dangers of symbolic victories.

    “The demand that South Carolina remove the “Stars and Bars” from in front of the state capital building is wholly symbolic, directly affecting one pole and one piece of cloth. The state’s governor and top Republican legislators would never consider letting go of the flag if it had not already become as much a burden as an asset to the Party.”

    The Republican Party may be more dangerous and appealing to many without the taint of the Confederate flag than with it. As Ford pointed out, Hillary has been instrumental in the deaths of millions of colored people but is wise enough not to surround herself with swastikas and confederate flags. The taint of racist symbols is a liability of the Right it may well be better they keep, if only for the sake of truth in advertising.

    Wasting time and energy battling over a piece of cloth detracts from more important issues like the Drug War and Police State.

  9. alkaloid says

    @doublereed, #6:

    I think how the conversation shifted came about from two factors:

    1) When the pictures of Dylann Roof surfaced with him wearing/associated with flags of apartheid South Africa, Rhodesia, and the Confederate flag.

    2) When the federal, US flag was at half mast to mourn the victims of the shooting, but the stars-and-bars flag (which was only put into general use as a symbolic revolt against the civil rights movement) wasn’t also lowered. I think that sort of set off the reaction that you’re seeing now, but there was always an undercurrent of revulsion against it.

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