States’ Rights to Do What, Exactly?

confederate flag

black panther party

Surprisingly enough, many of South Carolina’s representatives have enough of a head on their shoulders to agree that the Confederate flag ought to be taken down from the state capitol—though most are Democrats. But as you can see, a lot of people don’t like it when even conservatives like Mitt Romney say that it’s probably not a good idea to keep waving it. They see the flag as a symbol of states’ rights and don’t care if any PC-loving liberal finds it offensive:

“Mitt – can you say states’ rights? How about the 10th amendment? Any of that sound familiar?”

“To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred. So, as long as you can find some people, somewhere, to whom something is (or can be made into) a “symbol of racial hatred,” then that is grounds to prohibit it?”

Not completely unfair points, though fairly distorted, but I’d say that 1) no one other than the residents and representatives of South Carolina are going to make this decision, so it doesn’t matter if everyone outside of it tells you what you ought to do and there’s no reason to moan about it, though a cacophony of voices speaking out against the Confederate flag should give you a moment’s pause, and 2) it’s not like there are only two guys in Alabama who are offended by the flag; it’s a not insignificant percentage. And no one is saying the flag should be prohibited—it’s protected under free speech—but whether a state legislature should display a symbol with obvious connotations, many of them unpleasant.

There are two good questions worth asking people who see it as a symbol of states’ rights. First, it represents states’ rights to do what, exactly? In the context of the flag’s origin, which is that it was designed in 1861 for use as Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia’s battle flag, it not only represented the South’s rebellion (which many people might qualify as ‘treason’) and slavery, but also violence. It was never the official flag of the Confederate States of America, which seceded, yes, because of the issue of states’ rights, but furthermore because they thought those rights included enslaving human beings.

The second question would be how would these same people react if the Black Panther Party emblem were emblazoned on a flag and hoisted above any capitol building? Would they see it as a symbol of racial pride, of liberation, of resistance to institutional power? Or would they view it as a symbol of racism, violence, and intimidation? Would they then understand how people, particularly blacks, view the Confederate flag that same way? Would they think something like that is appropriate, that the government should so vociferously display its ideology? Unfortunately, we can never know, because there isn’t a suit in the country who would ever dare try such a thing. And that’s kind of where we are: 150 years after the Civil War, people still cling to a symbol of oppression as though it represents freedom and scoff at those still struggling to get a piece of it.


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