In debating Confederate flag, we’re asking the wrong questions

In this file photo, Confederate battle flags fly outside the museum at the Confederate Memorial Park in Mountain Creek, Ala., Tuesday, July 19, 2011. (AP Photo/Dave Martin, File)

The tragedy in Charleston has ripped open deep wounds, both new and old, not the least of which is debate over the Confederate flag. Opponents paint the flag as a symbol of racism. Defenders boil the issue down into a catchy, proverb-sized sound bite: Heritage, not hate.

That’s good for a rally but not so good for understanding the issue, because it’s never been one or the other. It is both.

That is the power — both terrible and beautiful — of symbols. Their meanings shift. Different time periods, different contexts, different people, different meanings.

“Heritage or hate?” is the wrong question.

Examining the ideology espoused by the flag’s designer is unproductive in understanding contemporary symbolic meanings if that history is widely unknown. When it comes to symbols, origins matter very little. The Star of David was not originally Jewish, nor was the Ichthus or “Jesus Fish” originally Christian. The skull and crossbones were created by the Spanish to mark their cemeteries long before they represented poison and piracy.

Symbols are often appropriated and, over time, can take on new meanings that erase their initial intent, so asking about original meanings is the wrong question, too.

It is hardly novel to point out that the Confederate flag was not a widespread public symbol of Southern culture and heritage extending unabated from the Civil War to the present, but rather a re-discovered symbol used by Southern politicians who opposed Civil Rights and desegregation.

The Confederate flag appeared on the South Carolina Statehouse in 1962, not 1862, and on the Georgia flag in 1956, not 1856.

No American, black or white, who lived during this time was unaware of the battle for Civil Rights being waged. For many, their first glimpse of the Confederate flag was during rallies and protests, coupled with posters espousing hatred for all African-American men and women, and in political arenas where laws were passed again and again that limited the rights of people of color.

These very public displays, splashed across the mass media, were impossible to ignore.

Recent polls suggest the negative interpretation of the flag has increased rather than decreased in the past few decades. A 1994 Louis Harris poll suggested that 68 percent of African-Americans were not offended by the Confederate flag. In 2011, a Pew Research Center Poll found the number had dropped to 55 percent.

In the South, that number was likely even lower, because just three years later, a Winthrop Poll reported only 27 percent of African Americans in South Carolina felt the flag should remain at the Statehouse.

There is no question that accused Charleston gunman Dylann Roof’s use of the Confederate flag was as a symbol of racist hatred. Not even the flag’s staunchest supporter can argue otherwise.

Nor is there any question that there are well-meaning young people in this country today who grew up with a Confederate flag in their homes or those of their grandparents, who see no evidence of racial hatred in their family.

Declaring their interpretation of the flag invalid ignores how symbols operate. We do not need to label these families racist any more than we need to continue to allow the Confederate flag to fly in public spaces where its meaning has been so clearly articulated again and again as a symbol of racial hatred.

The question we should be asking — and that increasingly more and more of us are asking — is when does one meaning of a symbol become so powerful it drowns out other interpretations? The NAACP concluded that moment had arrived in 2000 when it began a boycott of South Carolina for flying the Confederate flag over the Statehouse.

The moment came much sooner for some African-American state legislators in South Carolina who began calling for its removal as early as the 1970s when I was growing up there. According to recent polls, for most Americans, the moment is now.

Yet while majority consensus is comforting, that cannot be the only standard for change, particularly when it comes to protecting minority populations.

We must also consider the power of the symbol and the reactions it evokes. The sheer scope and depth of hatred toward African Americans perpetrated under the waving of the Confederate flag cannot be lined up against fond memorialization by a racial majority. Thankfully, there are many other ways to memorialize and symbolize one’s region, one’s ancestors, and one’s history that have not been co-opted by those spouting racial hatred.

Symbols are constantly created anew and imbued with new meaning.

We Southerners need to imbue new symbols, and ensure that our actions and beliefs truly reflect the values of equality, courage, and unity for which we say we stand.

Heritage or hate misses the point. It’s not about how many ways we can interpret a symbol. When one of those ways is so hurtful to so many people, it can no longer be tolerated.

Tom Mould, a native of Columbia, is a professor of anthropology at Elon University.