WASHINGTON, DC – JULY 9: Secretary of Defense Mark Esper testifies during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on July 9, 2020 in Washington, DC. Esper was scheduled to testify about the role of the Department of Defense in civilian law enforcement. Active duty troops aided local law enforcement around the country at protests last month in the wake of George Floyd’s death. (Photo by Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images)
I’ve gotten a few letters from readers over the past couple of weeks, who, upon reading my constant (and wholly justified) criticism of President Donald Trump, have asked me—some more politely and in publishable terms than others—if I have anything nice to say at all.
So, critics, write down the day. I am about to say something nice. Treasure this moment. Clip this column. Put it on your refrigerator at home.
The Pentagon did the right thing Friday as it announced a new policy effectively banning the display of the Confederate battle flag at military installations around the country.
The decision, announced by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, is admittedly imperfect. It lists the kinds of flag that are permissible: the American flag; the flags of U.S. states and territories as well as Washington D.C; military flags and those of allies, according to Politico. It specifically leaves out the Confederate flag, which, by inference, is banned.
As Politico notes, the half-a-loaf solution is intended to satisfy military leaders who have been pushing for the change and to avoid irritating Trump, who continues to insist that flying the banner of racists and traitors who once enslaved 13.4 percent of our current population is a matter of “freedom of speech.”
That’s a notion so ridiculous on its face that I could spend an entire column on that topic alone. It’s not freedom of speech. It’s an explicit endorsement of the horror that was visited upon our fellow Americans. The Civil War was fought to preserve slavery. Period.
Now before my southern readers proclaim, “You’re just an ignorant Yankee, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” I offer this rebuttal, in the mid-1990s, I lived and worked in North Carolina. I treasure my time there. And all these years later, I still carry traces of my time in the south in my bones.
Don’t believe me?
I still pull over for funeral processions. I still call people older than me whom I don’t know “sir” or “ma’am,” until I’m instructed in how they wish to be addressed. I know there’s only one correct answer when a southern woman offers you iced tea—“Yes, ma’am.” And the tea is sweet enough to turn your teeth to dust. None of the unsweetened stuff we drink up north.
And I know there’s only really good kind of barbecue—Lexington. Fight me on it.
And I know there are southerners, bless their hearts, who believe that Confederate battle flags are an expression of “heritage,” and I’ve had any number of discussions, often over ice tea, about that very matter. But to believe the flag is a mere show of heritage requires a Herculean self-deception.
And if you’re a northerner who hangs a Confederate flag off your front porch, what are you even doing? It’s not ironic. It’s not rebellious. It’s an expression of hate.
By hanging a Confederate battle flag off your front porch, you’re offering your endorsement, both explicit and implicit, of everything the Confederacy stood for. And it stood for keeping Black people in chains and exploiting their labor for the specific gains of a white majority.
And if you think that’s not the case. Consider this, flying a Confederate battle flag outside your house is the same as flying a ‘Bama flag, Tar Heel flag, or Georgia Bulldog flag off your front porch on game day.
It’s an act of tribalism. It’s your show of support. It’s an endorsement, explicit and implicit, of the teams.
Thus, if a Black person is walking by your house and you have a Confederate battle flag flying off the front porch, they will rightfully conclude that you endorse the hateful philosophy that underpinned it.
And if you think you’re paying tribute to your great–great–great grandaddy, then remember that your dear, departed ancestor fought to keep Blacks enslaved.
It’s really pretty easy.
Flags and statues honor and celebrate the things we hold dear. Americans don’t honor and celebrate racists and traitors who fought to keep people enslaved.
There’s a place for that history: In books and in our museums. Not in our town squares. And thankfully, that’s happening—even if the president is blathering on about “our beautiful monuments” as a bullhorn call to racists.
In this extraordinary moment, we’re finally reaching that moment of reckoning. You can do your part: Take down the flag.
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