Taking down the Confederate flag in Charleston isn’t enough

You can kill a symbol, but it’s not as easy to extinguish an idea—or the gun politics that help enforce it.

Responding to widespread public pressure, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley is calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from the State Capitol in Charleston. Although my colleague, S.E. Smith, pointed out that Haley has no power to actually remove it, she has joined other GOP politicians in denouncing the flag—including Lindsey Graham, Mitt Romney, and Donald Trump. In addition, Walmart and Amazon have dropped all apparel donning the flag, while Virginia is dropping the flag as an option from their personalized license plates.

While it’s absolutely time for the flag to go the way of the dodo, it’s hardly a cure for the real problems haunting Charleston less than a week after nine people were gunned down in the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old who subscribed to white supremacist ideologies. You can kill a symbol, but it’s not as easy to extinguish an idea—or the gun politics that help enforce it.

This is not to deny the power of the Confederate flag’s removal. The flag is not simply a memorial commemorating “bravery in the Civil War,” as Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly recently argued, it’s a reminder of the peculiar institution that the South fought to protect: slavery. If Barack Obama told Marc Maron that the slave trade “casts a long shadow and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on,” it is not an abstract idea. He was being literal—slavery’s shadow can be seen flapping in the Charleston wind every day.

You can kill a symbol, but it’s not as easy to extinguish an idea—or the gun politics that help enforce it.

However, if slavery is part of our DNA, the effects of America’s troubled history won’t be quelled by taking down the flags of South Carolina, Mississippi, or any other flags that honor “Southern heritage.” Instead, we must combat that heritage itself, which continues to be romanticized in our schools, our homes, and our entertainment. 

In a widely circulated photo that’s indicative of Dylann Roof’s ideologies, he’s pictured in front of the Confederate Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, one emblazoned with the Confederate flag, and the image shocked Americans. But shouldn’t we be more concerned with the fact that such an establishment continues to operate? Or that it’s far from the only museum of its kind?

This speaks to the stark discrepancy between how different parts of the country remember the Civil War. While 52 percent of all Americans believe that the war was a dispute over slavery, a 2011 CNN poll found that an alarmingly high 42 percent still believe that it was about states’ rights. Even more disturbing is the fact that nearly a quarter of respondents reported that they empathize more with the South’s cause than the North—and that figure jumps up to around 40 percent among Southern white folks. Clearly Charleston’s Confederate Museum does not want for potential customers.

This divide comes down to the words we use to describe the Civil War itself, often known in the South as “Lincoln’s War” or “The War of Northern Aggression,” which suggests that it was a conflict started by the Abraham Lincoln and Union. Washington Post writer Baynard Woods grew up in Charleston, where their classroom education about the “War of Northern Aggression” tiptoed around the painful realities of the conflict, truths that many in the South clearly still cannot face up to.

Nearly a quarter of respondents reported that they empathize more with the South’s cause than the North—and that figure jumps up to around 40 percent among Southern white folks. 

“When we studied the Revolutionary War, we learned about Francis Marion, the ‘Swamp Fox,’ but we did not learn that despite hosting more battles than any other colony, South Carolina contributed fewer fighters than any other to the Continental Army, because they needed the men to oppress the slave population, partially because of the fear of another Stono Creek,” Woods writes.

This apologia for the war—cherrypicking the aspects most ripe for nostalgia—is surprisingly common in popular narratives about the Civil War, from the absurdly successful Gone with the Wind to Birth of a Nation, a movie that wasn’t just popular among Southern Democrats. Woodrow Wilson liked D.W. Griffith’s ode to “Southern bravery” so much that he regularly showed it in the White House. In the film’s most infamous scene, Griffith depicts the effects of allowing black people into Congress after Reconstruction. It’s presented like a zoo.

However, our double consciousness around the Civil War reflects more than just how we view the past. It’s a reflection of our historical present. The current NRA president, Jim Porter, even referred to the “War of Northern Aggression” in a 2015 speech.

The NRA was started, 1871, right here in New York state. It was started by some Yankee generals who didn’t like the way my Southern boys had the ability to shoot in what we call the “War of Northern Aggression.” Now, y’all might call it the Civil War, but we call it the War of Northern Aggression down south.

But that was the very reason that they started the National Rifle Association, was to teach and train the civilian in the use of the standard military firearm. And I am one who still feels very strongly that that is one of our most greatest charges that we can have today, is to train the civilian in the use of the standard military firearm, so that when they have to fight for their country they’re ready to do it.

Porter’s statement (note the way he says “my Southern boys”) is a reflection of the ways in which we’ve allowed a debate over the removal of a flag to usurp the conversations we should be having instead. In addition to fighting the legacy of slavery—as well as America’s broader racial issues—Porter shows that racism and opposition to gun control often go hand in hand.

While they’re treated as separate issues, research has shown they’re all part of the same problem—white supremacy. In 2013, Pacific Standard’s Tom Jacobs reported on a study from Australia’s Monash University, which found that a “high score on a common measure of racial resentment increases the odds that a person will (a) have a gun in the house, and (b) be opposed to gun control. This holds true even after other ‘explanatory variables,’ including political party affiliation, are taken into account.”

It goes further than that: Our current gun control debate is actually a product of the Civil War itself, with the post-Reconstruction Ku Klux Klan fighting for gun control as a way to keep guns out of the hands of black people. “Before the Civil War, blacks in the South had never been allowed to possess guns,” the Daily Beast’s Adam Winkler writes. “During the war, however, blacks obtained guns for the first time.” That power scared whites so thoroughly that Southern states developed reactionary Black Codes, discriminatory policies that barred gun ownership from black people.

While they’re treated as separate issues, research has shown they’re all part of the same problem: white supremacy.

Although the development of the NRA should have then empowered black people (by lobbying for everyone’s right to own a gun), the gun laws that developed in the wake of the Uniform and Firearms Act continued to prevent equal access. The first gun control law, the Uniform and Firearms Act of 1934, required gun owners to apply for a license. But Winkler writes that there was a catch: “According to the law, only ‘suitable people’ with a ‘proper reason’ for being armed in public were eligible.” These terms were so vague that they could apply to anyone, and that loophole was often used to target prospective black gun owners.

While the Right’s stance on gun control has since shifted to the other extreme, policies continue to arm white men at the expense of people of color, who are structurally barred from ownership. “America’s most recent gun control efforts, such as requiring federally licensed dealers to conduct background checks, aren’t designed to keep blacks from having guns, only criminals,” Winkler writes. “Of course, the unfortunate reality is that the criminal population in America is disproportionately made up of racial minorities.”

Winkler reminds us that the more things change, the more they stay the same, especially for black folks in America. Retiring the Confederate flag might be a way to cosmetically address those concerns, but it doesn’t explain why it was still flying to begin with—or why so many people will fight to protect it, clutching their guns and heritage. Confronting the symbols of white supremacy means a true reckoning with a past that is very much alive—in Dylann Roof’s Facebook photos, on the streets of South Carolina, in our textbooks, and in our courts.

Throwing away a flag is a nice gesture, but for those mourning Charleston’s dead, it’s not the one they need.

Nico Lang is the Opinion Editor for the Daily Dot.

Correction: The quote attributed Baynard Woods was originally published in the Washington Post

Photo via akrockerfeller/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

Nico Lang

Nico Lang

Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.