Is the Confederate Battle Flag Racist?

Short answer: no. It’s an inanimate object. It’s not racist. Whelp. That was easy.

But wait, there’s more. Perhaps some better questions would be:

Did the Confederate battle flag stand for racism and slavery to the Confederates?

The short answer to this is also no. Most if not all of the people who fought under the Confederate battle flag were not fighting for racism. They weren’t even fighting for slavery. Simply put, they were fighting to protect their homes, families, land, and way of life from an invading armed force. Just like (I hope) any of you would fight if your homes were in danger from a “foreign” aggressor.

This is made especially clear by the thousands of black slaves and freedmen who fought voluntarily under the Confederate battle flag. You can’t tell me they were fighting for racism. Or to protect slavery. Some of them were impressed into service, no doubt, and the history of black Confederates is a hotly contested issue, but plenty of anecdotal evidence indicates that many black slaves and freedmen fought against the Yankees for the same reason as their white brothers in arms: simply because they wanted to protect their homes and families from destruction.

For these men, the Confederate battle flag was a symbol of their home and country, not a symbol of racism and slavery. Just consider why Southerners fought to the bitter end. Fighting to protect racism and the institution of slavery is not going to motivate people for long when they have no food and their country is literally being burned to the ground. You can’t eat an idea. Or sleep in it. Or wear it on your back. Fighting against slavery and racism wasn’t even enough to keep Northern forces motivated. The main reason the South fought beyond the limits of reason, hope, and resources is because they were fighting to protect their homes. No other motivation makes any sense at all.

But, even if you grant that the Confederate flag didn’t originally stand for slavery or racism, there’s still another question to ask:

Does the Confederate battle flag stand for racism now?

This is a trickier question. Certainly some people who fly the Confederate battle flag are racists. But some obviously are not. For instance, Byron Thomas, a black South Carolinian, won the right to fly a Confederate battle flag in his dorm room after he had been asked to take it down. He said that the flag meant nothing more to him than “Southern pride.” Oddly enough, for Byron Thomas, the Confederate battle flag means the same thing it meant to Confederates: home.

So, if the Confederate battle flag doesn’t inherently stand for racism, why are people so offended by it?

Are people right to be offended by the Confederate battle flag?

I think the Confederate battle flag has been inextricably connected to racism and the institution of slavery. Most of this can be blamed on the obviously racist KKK. It doesn’t really matter if the KKK has completely misunderstood the nature of the antebellum South and the causes of Southern defeat. It doesn’t matter if modern historians have almost universally aided and abetted the KKK’s false flag by misrepresenting the entire history of slavery and the War Between the States.

None of that really matters. The contemporary perception of the Confederate battle flag may be based entirely on lies. But the perception itself is honest. People honestly believe the flag stands for racism and slavery. And they are right to be offended by racism and slavery.

So should the Confederate battle flag come down?

Should we submit ourselves to the ignorance of the larger populace? It’s not a rhetorical question. It may seem trivial, but we succumb to the ignorance of the populace all the time. For instance, have you ever seen a sign that said “Caution: Flammable.” Flammable is a fairly modern linguistic invention, and it is one of the more ignorant verbal contraptions ever created. Everything is technically flammable, in the sense that you can apply a flame to pretty much anything. The question is not whether something is flammable. The real question of any import is whether something is inflammable, meaning: is it able to be inflamed? Combustible substances and liquids used to carry the label inflammable, but the larger populace, because of rank ignorance, assumed that inflammable meant cannot be set on fire. And it was at least causing confusion. Apparently it was also posing a real and actual danger to the ignorant. Some heartless people would say, “Who cares? Let the idiots die if they don’t know English well enough to smoke their cigarettes elsewhere.” But society at large said that we should change our language in order to protect the ignorant.

Similarly, it may be time we drop the Confederate battle flag. Trying to explain its true heritage is as futile as giving an etymology lesson to a person who just set himself on fire. All this inflammatory (or should I say flammatory) talk about the Confederate battle flag should stop. It’s merely a symbol of a thing, not the thing itself. You may think the Confederate flag stands for heritage and home. Many of your neighbors think it stands for a heritage of hate. When they ask you to take it down, they aren’t necessarily denying your heritage or your home. At least, that’s not what they’re trying to do. They think your symbol stands for something else, and it’s that something else they won’t stand for. Perhaps the best path for us now is to do our best to educate others, while showing through our deference to them that our true motivation has nothing to do with hate—or the wrong kind of pride.