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.
It was predictable that the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the SCV because it’s dominated by Republican presidential appointees. And it’s highly likely, given the high court’s current ideological composition, that you’ll soon be able to buy a Confederate vanity plate at a DMV near you.
One major problem is that many arguments opposing the Confederate flag as offensive are weak, if valiant. We’re offended by a lot of things we see all the time—that doesn’t mean we file a lawsuit.
Instead, we need to refresh ourselves on the history of that flag and expose it is a symbol of treason as defined by the U.S. Constitution (which armed Confederate troops, citizens and officials violated more than 150 years ago). Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution states, “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.”
Waving or displaying a rebel flag, which represented not only slavery but also the violent downfall of this great (imperfect) union that we enjoy today, could be interpreted as “adhering” to enemies of the state and “giving them aid and comfort.” Even Congress back then had sense enough to pass a Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, viewing the Klan as domestic terrorists.
These same “hate groups” were among America’s first original, full-blown and well-armed terrorist organizations (pdf)—and whether we like to admit it or not, they still are. The persistent white supremacy monitor known as the Southern Poverty Law Center also reminds us that even the SCV is back under the control of closeted racists attempting to rewrite history. Such groups pay homage to an armed insurrection that resulted in the deaths of more than 700,000 combined troops and civilians. They revere the leaders responsible for the lynching deaths of more than 4,800 mostly black civilians between 1882 and 1968—at least those we know of as recorded by Tuskegee Institute archivists.
Our national conversation on race is so trivialized that we tolerate open symbols of racist treason and white supremacy as extensions of harmless hate groups who wear ridiculous white hats. No wonder 51 percent of Americans, according to another YouGov poll, believe (pdf) that we talk about race “too much.”
In the meantime, a revived national history lesson on that cause would be nice.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.