America Urgently Needs a History Lesson About the Confederate Flag

The rebel flag represents a treasonous cause. So why are so many Americans OK with seeing it on a license plate?

Confederate-flag supporters demonstrate on the north steps of the Capitol April 6, 2000, in Columbia, S.C.  
Confederate-flag supporters demonstrate on the north steps of the Capitol April 6, 2000, in Columbia, S.C.   ERIK PEREL/AFP/Getty Images

Editor’s note: This article was first published in April before the Supreme Court ruled June 18 that the state of Texas was within its rights when it denied the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ application for a proposed specialty license plate featuring the rebel flag. In light of June 17’s church shooting in South Carolina, allegedly by 21-year-old Dylann Roof, a white man, which left nine African Americans dead, people are once again calling for the Confederate flag to be removed from flying outside the South Carolina Statehouse.

The Supreme Court is currently deliberating one of the more noxious and symbolic racial cases of our time. All nine justices are chewing on a fundamental question: Did the state of Texas in 2010 violate the free speech rights of the Sons of Confederate Veterans when it rejected a proposed specialty license plate featuring the controversial rebel flag?

If things shake out in its favor, the SCV, a slick post-Civil War so-called heritage group, stands to have all the rebel-flag plates it wants.

Overwhelmed by angry public comments, Texas had rejected SCV’s proposal after several states approved it. With Texas’ combined 40 percent population of color, the state’s racial complexion is rapidly changing. Outraged by the proposal, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) blasted then-Gov. Rick Perry’s Republican administration in 2011 for even considering it. “Ill intended or not, why would African Americans want to be reminded of a legalized system of involuntary servitude, dehumanization, rape and mass murder?” she asked.

Because almost half of all Americans don’t feel the same way she does.

In a YouGov poll released this week, there’s actually a split over what the Confederate flag means and what we should do with it. Some 40 percent of Americans approve of a rebel-flag vanity plate—in fact, more people are fine with it than are not. And while you would think that there’s higher approval for the Confederate flag in the South, there isn’t: Approval of the license plate is at 49 percent in the West, compared with 41 percent in the South.

The various breakdowns (pdf) on this are a bit surreal, if not surprising, given today’s racial climate. More whites view the flag as a symbol of “Southern pride” (47 percent) than of racism, with 40 percent of whites also approving of its display. African Americans, understandably, do not feel the same: Fifty-five percent of blacks see it as racism, and only 13 percent approve of its display. The largest group of all those polled, 41 percent, consider the flag a symbol of Southern pride, compared with 31 percent who view it as a symbol of racism. When the results are broken down by party, 63 percent of Republicans view it as Southern pride, compared with only 28 percent of Democrats who do. A majority of independents see it as good-ole’-boy Deep South pride, too.

These findings align with the results of a 2011 Pew Research poll, which showed that 58 percent of Americans have neither a positive nor a negative reaction to the Confederate flag. Only 29 percent of whites had a negative reaction, compared with 41 percent of African Americans. That number is still low, given that so many black people’s ancestors were subjected to unspeakable horrors under that flag and what it symbolized. Worse yet: Thirty-six percent of whites and 33 percent of blacks in that Pew poll felt it was “appropriate to praise Confederate leaders.”

The Pew poll was four years ago. But based on the response to this week’s YouGov poll, folks are in desperate need of a national refresher course on slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and a segregationist past that ended not so long ago.

So let’s just stop framing the Confederate-flag issue as a free speech issue and call it what it is: treason.

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