Flags As Symbols Of Racism

Flags are soaring symbols of pride and community, as well as emotional, incendiary sparks for those on the other side of the barricade. They are among the most immediate, primal, and communicative forms of design. They are made of icons and become icons themselves — even more so when they come to represent a long struggle. — Paola Antonelli

President Obama recently said that the Confederate Flag was, “a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation.” Those same words could be an adapt description for many flags, current and past, depending upon one’s perspective and upon which side of the “barricade” they stand.

Symbols, particularly those on the flags of nations, have always stood in the center of controversy as to their purpose and meaning. There is  currently an ongoing debate in our legislative corridors, internet chatrooms, and city streets as to the meaning and purpose of the Confederate flag. Those in favor of maintaining the current status quo believe the flag is a symbol of southern pride. Those who demand the flag’s removal from government buildings and properties see it as a symbol of our country’s continued institutionalized racism. This debate was most recently stirred as a result of the killing of nine innocent Black members of the Mother Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina by a self proclaimed white supremacist, Dylann Roof.

Personally I am in favor of removing the flag because to me as a Black man growing up in America it represents the same racist attitude as the white gowns and pointed hats of the Ku Klux Klan, and I offer this caution. **Removal of any symbol whose interpretation is so widely diverse is not the solution to the inherent racism in America today. It does not even scratch the surface. I caution against interpreting the symbol, in this case the Confederate flag, for the real problem, racism in America. Amazon and Walmart can remove the flags from their stores but what does that do as far as changing the racist mindset of American society and institutions? Nothing! Absolutely nothing.

The first African slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. When the Confederate flag was created at the outbreak of the Civil War, America had been importing, torturing, raping, hanging, and selling slaves for 240 years. The racism existed long before the Confederate flag was ever created. George M. Fredrickson, a former Stanford University Professor of History and best known for his work in the fields of comparative history, and the study of racism and white supremacy had this to say about racism in America.

People everywhere, through history, have sometimes been beastly to members of groups they though of as different. What is distinctive about racism in the West is the development of a full scale systematic ideology to explain why these others deserved bad treatment. And that theory was necessary only because modern Western society was unlike most others and did not share the assumption that human beings were created equal, and thus had nothing to explain away.

The Confederate flag is merely a symptom of a deeply ingrained disease imbedded in the core of American society. Removal of the flag from government buildings is paramount to treating cancer with an aspirin when only removal of the cancer can possibly save the patient.

The Rainbow flag of the LGBT movement was the symbol referred to above in the quotation by Paola Antonelli. As Curator for The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA),  in New York City, she was responsible for adding the original Rainbow flag to the museum’s collection. The flag itself was created by Gilbert Baker in 1978 as a symbol of the struggle for human rights by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals following the Stonewall Inn riots in New York’s Greenwich Village, Manhattan in June of 1969. The Stonewall Inn was recently given Historical Landmark status as the birthplace of the LGBT movement in America.

Prior to the recent controversies over the Confederate flag, this flag was and is still, in many countries, responsible for generating the greatest social divide between world  cultures. Many nations such as Russia, some nations of Africa, most Middle Eastern  nations, and many Malaysian nations ban all LGBT activities on the grounds of moral and religious laws, and social standards. This flag is both a symbol of pride for constituents and of distain for those who oppose the rights and recognition of members of the LGBT movement.

The two World Wars generated the most hatred between our global societies until the recently US led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the second World War following  the bombing of Pearl Harbor the red circle of the flag of Japan became a much hated symbol. The United States interned more than 120,000 US citizens of Japanese heritage, seized their land and personal belongings, and removed all rights to equality under the law from our own citizens. It was later determined by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC) under then President Jimmy Carter that the US government acted based on **racism** as no proof was ever found of disloyalty by these citizens. Over 1.6 billion dollars was paid in reparations to the remaining survivors and their families under President Reagan when he sign into law the Civil Liberties Act and apologized for the mistreatment of American citizens? To this date no  apologies or reparations have been made to the indigenous peoples from whom this land was taken under the guise of Manifest Destiny nor to the families of former slaves upon whose backs this nation was built. Racism was the major theme in both the occupation of this land and the building of this nation. Under the belief of Manifest Destiny the United States government engaged in a genocidal war against the indigenous nations of the country.

Those who survived the only wartime use of nuclear weapons will never forgive the US government for its actions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For all practical purposes, the war in the Pacific was over and won following the fire bombings of Japan, but the United States bombed these two cities which were not military targets to improve their bargaining position at the peace table, and to show Russia what awaited them if they continued advancement into Europe. It was a military test and show of strength for which over 130,000 citizens, not soldiers, lost their lives.

The two other players whose national symbols became symbols of hatred and  genocide based upon a belief in a superior race and a desire to rid a nation of unwanted elements during the second World War were Nazi Germany and the USSR (Russia). The history and genocide against the Jews is well known and document but the swastika of the German flag was also a symbol of hatred and fear to those living in Eastern Europe as Hitler’s troops invaded country after country along its eastern boarder. Today I have Dutch and Jewish friend who will not associated or talk with German friends seventy-five years after the war in Europe ended. Wounds of hatred are not easily dismissed even though the flag no longer represents Germany today and my friends were all born after the war’s end. The symbol was removed but the hatred lingers.

In October, 1962, I went to my gym class expecting to go outside during a crisp fall morning to play soccer as usual but instead of going outside to play, the gym teacher,  a former officer in the army, had us line up and begin teaching us how to march in formation. I was fourteen years old. The Soviet Union had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba, 90 miles off the coast of Florida and the next thirteen days would be the most tense for the nation in the twentieth century. Even after the Cuban blockade ended and the missiles were withdrawn by Russia we still had daily fire drills. When the bell sounded we were to “duck and cover” which met we were to get under our desk and cover our heads, not that any such gestures would save us from a nuclear attack.

The evening news showed films clips of Soviet Prime Minister, Nikita Khrushchev, speaking before Western Ambassadors in 1956. We saw newsreels of him pounding his fist against the podium and saying, “We will bury you.” ( meaning the US.) The hammer, cycle, and star of Communism took on a totally different meaning for me. The media had made the flag a symbol of fear and hatred as the evening news showed people building underground bomb shelters in their back yards and men signing up for the armed forces. The news showed photographs of the fallout area if a bomb landed in New York or Miami, etc. I learned that a symbol whether it was the pointed hat and gown of the KKK or the hammer and cycle of the Soviet flag could instill hatred and fear all by itself. It was only years later that I was able to accept a symbol as just a symbol in the same way a word is just a word. Neither can carry fear or hatred unless I put it there.

Religious symbols are the most dangerous because they pit one’s god against another’s god, and so many wrongs have been committed in a god’s name. So many people have died, and so many cultures destroyed, all in the name of some god. It is still genocide and racism but backed by a religious doctrine or belief. Each side believes its god is in the  right. My invisible god is better and more righteous than your invisible god and to prove that I am going to eliminate your heathen kind. That was the purpose of the Crusades whose symbol was the Christian cross. A symbol proudly displayed not only on the flag but also on the clothing of the knights. They were fighting for religious dominance of the world and at the same time calling themselves saviors of mankind. Even after the Crusaders were driven out of the Holy Lands by the Muslim armies two hundred years later, the symbol of the red cross remained.

At the turn of the last century, Pope John Paul II apologized to the world for the 2000 years of wrongs done in the name of God under the veils of Christianity and the Catholic church. He apologized for the denigration of women by the Catholic church. He apologized for the role played by the church in the destruction of so many other world cultures, for its promotion of racism, for not taking action during the Nazi invasion, for the bloody Crusades, slavery, and the Spanish Inquisition. He acknowledge the church had not always been at the forefront of good for the world. His actions took a lot of courage and angered many in the Church membership. In the years to follow Australia would also apologize to the Aborigines for their mistreatment by the white citizens and government of Australia but still no apology from the US government for its genocide and racism.

Another flag which uses a religious symbol to justify its actions and destruction of non  believers is the flag of Israel and the star of David. To Jews it is a symbol of religious obedience and national pride as the Confederate flag is to some southerners, but to the people of Gaza, the star of David is a symbol of death and destruction. A symbol of anger and fear. Israel uses its military might much like its strongest supporter, the United States, to dominate and to take what it wants in terms of land and resources, to control and subjugate a race of human beings whom they systematical eliminate and crowd closer together simply because they believe in a different god. They justify their actions to no one and they are pulled on the ear by no one.

Why does a Dylann Roof kill nine innocent people because they have Black skin? I do  not know. I do know, however, that symbols have existed since the dawn of mankind and that the elimination of the symbol does not eliminate the belief or the fear associated with either side of the symbol. Even though a symbol or flag may not be seen or in the news for over well over forty years, it can still maintain a hidden impact stronger than the symbol itself. Just ask Patty Hearst what she feels when she sees this flag.