One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War ended, the Confederate battle flag is once again in the midst of bullets and regional schism.
In photos, the flag is there in the hand of Dylann Roof, the alleged killer of nine African-Americans in a Charleston church. It was at the center of a Supreme Court decision on whether the Sons of the Confederacy had the right to Texas-issued licensed plates bearing the flag’s image. And it was there flying at full staff on the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol despite the mourning for the Charleston dead that lowered the United States flag to half-staff.
Many are now turning on the symbol. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, said Texas was not obligated to allow it on license plates. At least one South Carolina lawmaker has said he will introduce legislation to remove the flag from the Confederate memorial it flies above on the Capitol grounds. South Carolina’s Republican senators, Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, and the state’s Republican Gov. Nikki Haley on Monday joined the call for the flag’s removal.
Common decency, and now common political sense, should compel the removal of the flag Roof displayed on the Internet before he allegedly opened fire in a historic church in hopes of igniting “a race war.” But, in another sense, there is value in the persistence of the symbol of an army that fought against its own nation to protect the institution of slavery. For the flag makes vivid what is too often obscured – the powerful role of racism in America.
There is a kind of justice in Republican presidential candidates forced to tread carefully around the question of whether the Confederate flag should come down. The Republican Party has been dog whistling racial messages since Ronald Reagan opened his 1980 presidential campaign with a speech supporting “states rights” in Philadelphia, Miss., a city infamous for the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers.
That not-quite-overt messaging stepped up in the response to the election of the nation’s first black president. It’s what fuels the rabid opposition to “Obamacare,” the refusal to expand Medicaid (the 21 holdouts include almost the entire South) and the determination to make voting more difficult in hopes of blunting the impact of minority voters who were decisive in twice electing President Obama.
The Confederate flag issue puts a spotlight on this subterfuge. Some look awfully bad in the glare.
“If the state government of South Carolina wishes to address an issue in their state, that’s fine,” said Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor now seeking the GOP’s presidential nomination. He added, “everyone’s being baited with this question, as if it has anything to do whatsoever with running for president. And my position is, it most certainly does not.”
Huckabee’s denial of the issue’s relevance reveals how relevant it is. He is counting on white, conservative voters. He’s not about to take a position that runs counter to how the flag appeals to their sense of struggle with a federal government they see as supporting low-income minorities at their expense.
Other GOP candidates, Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, gave tepid opinions that South Carolina would do the right thing. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker gave another of his profiles in evasion. He said he would have no comment until the Charleston victims were buried.
Meanwhile, news reports disclosed that three other Republican presidential contenders, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum and Rand Paul, had received tens of thousands of dollars from the white supremacist group that apparently influenced Roof’s racial hatred. The campaigns, which might have been unaware of the white supremacist statements by the Council of Conservative Citizens, plan to return the contributions or donate them to charity.
The Confederate flag shouldn’t fly in South Carolina. But subtly appealing to what it represents shouldn’t fly in American politics anywhere.