On April 17, voters in Mississippi will decide whether to change their state flag, which currently features prominently the Confederate battle flag.
I was born in Texas, grew up believing — and still believe — that Robert E. Lee was one of the finest men ever to draw breath, and whenever as a boy I fell asleep half-dreaming about the Civil War, always wore a gray uniform. My father’s parents were from Mississippi — Mathiston and Eupora — and my parents and I are Texans, and in all my years growing up and playing army I can never remember choosing to be a Yankee rather than a Rebel. The Confederate flag, I can honestly say, has never had any racially charged meaning for me.
And yet I have concluded, sadly, that, if I were voting on April 17, I would vote to have it removed from the Mississippi state flag. I also hasten to add that, not only am I a Southerner, but a conservative. But here are my reasons.
Mississippians have to recognize that the meaning of the Confederate flag is ambiguous. It is certainly true that, to many, like me, the flag can signify simply our Southern heritage. But it was also used to signify, most recently, opposition to desegregation and, to some, it still signifies continued racism and the opposition to equal rights for blacks and whites.
It may be true that many blacks are hypersensitive on the matter — quick to condemn any expression of Southern pride, in any context, public or private — but it is not unreasonable for them to object here. Why, black Mississippians may reasonably ask, should the state go out of its way to fly officially a flag that it knows many will salute for bad reasons?
Maintaining a memorial to the Confederate dead or naming a school after Stonewall Jackson is different, by the way. It is not reasonable to view those actions as giving a thumbs-up to racism. But deciding in 2001 to keep the Confederate flag as part of the state flag can reasonably be read as a deliberate affront.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Ask yourself: If you were black, would you want your state flag to feature prominently the flag of the Confederacy?
Try to imagine if the shoe were on the other foot: That you were black, or that it was whites who had been slaves. Would you feel you shared the heritage that was the disputed part of the flag?
Does it make a difference that those shouting most loudly and obnoxiously for the flag’s removal are, not to put too fine a point on it, demagogic jerks who, if they were really serious about improving the lives of African Americans, would aim their efforts elsewhere? That is, should the forces of political correctness be opposed on principle, even though they may actually be correct in a particular situation?
This has become an important part of the dynamic here. Many folks would happily vote to remove the flag — or, even better, would never vote to have it on the state flag in the first place if we were starting now on a clean slate — but cannot bear to hand the race-baiting demagogues and their ilk a victory.
But this reasoning is, I am afraid, self-defeating. In the long run, it costs conservatives their credibility if they choose to be on the wrong side just because of who is on the right side.
There is bad-little-boyism at work here, too. Flying the Confederate flag is like hitting your silly martinet of a grade-school teacher in the back of her head with a spitball. It is teasing someone when you know that the response will be wildly disproportionate — which is, of course, a big part of the fun. But all this is an explanation, not a justification.
And here is the clinching epiphany I had the other day when I was helping my son with his history homework. The assignment was about the treatment of American Indians. It is certainly true, I told my son, that Indians were badly treated. But those wrongs cannot be undone, and it is pointless to dwell — as many modern-day Indian activists do — on them.
The same is true for the way blacks have been treated. Yes, slavery was wrong, but that is history now, and we must move forward as one nation, not try to go our separate, balkanized, grievance-group ways.
Likewise, it is all well and good for Indians today to be proud of their Indian heritage and blacks to be proud of their African-American heritage. But that pride becomes objectionable when it eclipses their pride in being Americans and is used to drive a wedge between them and their fellow citizens.
But then it struck me: Isn’t all this rightly said to Southerners, too? Perhaps the South was right in its argument about states’ rights, perhaps the Yankees were money-grubbing and brutal, and surely one can be proud of the gallantry with which Southerners fought. But we have to move on, there’s no point in dwelling on past grievances, and certainly one should be an American first and a Son or Daughter of the Confederacy only second.
Just substitute Confederates for Indians. Yes, Confederates were brave. Yes, they suffered enormously. Yes, they were just fighting for their way of life and what they believed in. But they lost, and as a nation we can’t change that or be sorry that they lost, any more than we can give the country back to the Indians or wish that they had won.
What would a conservative think if the NAACP insisted that Mississippi include some “black pride” logo in its flag, or a Choctaw activist wanted to replace the battle flag with some Native American pennant? He would rightly reject such demands, pointing out that our coins say E pluribus unum: Out of many, one.
One last, important point to consider: The cost of flipping the bird may be high. One of the principal arguments used to justify racial preferences is the absurd claim that America is a deeply racist society. I don’t for a minute believe that a vote for the old flag in Mississippi proves that most Mississippians are racist, let alone that most Americans are, but, believe me, that will be the claim.
Over the next year or two, there is a good chance that a stake will be driven through the heart of racial preferences. The Supreme Court has just agreed to hear a case involving preferences in the contracting context, where the lower courts have generally struck them down, and there have also been a number of recent rulings ending preferences in university admissions and, to a less extent, employment. California, Washington, Texas, and Florida have all moved away from such discrimination in recent years. Preferences have always been divisive and hard to justify, and they are becoming more so with every tick of the clock.
The we-are-all-Americans-first argument is a powerful weapon against those who would institutionalize identity politics and multiculturalism. But it loses much of its power if, in the same breath, we say it is all right to fly the Confederate battle flag over Mississippi. Changing the flag is the right course — for exactly the same reason that the NAACP is so often these days headed in the wrong direction: It seeks to unite rather than divide.
So change the flag, but make the point that it is being lowered for a larger principle that many of its detractors won’t like: There is one America. No special treatment or privileges for anyone, no living in the past, no celebration of diversity or grievances. We are a forward-looking country, and we are all Americans first.
Roger Clegg is president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity.