The Math on Stars and Bars: Rebel Flag Bad Does Not Equal Yankees Good

Wait a minute. For 10 minutes after the Charleston church slaughter we were engaged in a national conversation about racism. Now everybody up North is singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic again.

I hate the rebel flag. I can’t stand it when racist confederophiles tell me the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. The history is important because it never stopped. Now it’s now.

But give me a break. I’m a Yankee transplant to the South, product of activist Roosevelt liberal parents, veteran of 1960s University of Michigan hippiedom, and even I can see the enormous hypocrisy in the reflexive tendency of white Northerners to confederatize racism.

It’s just glorying in victory at war. That’s all it is in the end. And who among us really believes glorying in victory at war will draw us one inch down the road toward wisdom, reconciliation or generosity of spirit?

I’m not even sure people know they’re doing it when they do it sometimes. On the surface the words of a recent New York Times
editorial urging South Carolina to take down the stars and bars seemed pretty reasonable: “State lawmakers who must vote on removing it need to do that now and show the nation they understand the pain this symbol of hate and brutality causes to this day. “

But it’s also appalling that people in the North cannot understand the effect their long bony fingers of disapprobation have on the people in whose faces they wag them. Why do they think that stupid flag is even still around?

I wrote here 13 years ago about growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a university town in the 1950s that immodestly called itself “The Athens of the Midwest.” (Oh well, better than the Pickle Capital.) Ann Arbor was divided by a street called Division Street, on one side of which white people lived, on the other side of which were black people.

My parents, the liberals, insisted that my brother and I attend the neighborhood elementary school, Jones School, which was the “colored school.” We were almost the only white kids at Jones.

We lasted a year. Our attendance at Jones was the cause of scandal at the Episcopal Church where my father was associate rector. The upside was that it forced the church to buy us a big house out in a lily-white neighborhood where the professors lived.

In the 1970s I was a reporter in Detroit, a city still bleeding from the 1967 armed uprising that white people called “The Riot.” Similar uprisings tore apart cities across the North, Middle West and West.

So why do we think black people took up guns, burned buildings, shot at cops, firemen and soldiers and got shot themselves? Because they were maladjusted?

Those were armed rebellions against racism, and in the long eye of history they will be understood as part of the same violent process of liberation of which the Civil War was only an opening chapter.

The racial uprisings of the 1960s and ‘70s were not Southern. They were all over the country. The American history of racism is all over the country. No patch of dirt in this nation has a claim to pride and virtue where race is concerned.

Oh, please, I’m not here talking some trash about how the rebel flag is a symbol of pride, honor and heritage. The rebel flag is emblematic of slavery, which was a 12-generations-long exercise in depravity on a scale with the Nazi Holocaust. All I am saying is that all white Americans would do well with a lot more modesty and a lot less finger-wagging on this score.
When I worked at the Detroit Free Press in the 1970s, I lived downtown. My parents were out in Rochester, a hick town that became an affluent white flight capital overnight after 1967.

When I went out there to attend church events (hypocrisy to be discussed in later columns, possibly not this year), white people grabbed me by the elbow and spewed terrible racist n-word invective at me for living “down there” with “them.”

When I came to Dallas in the late 1970s, I never heard that kind of talk. But I did wonder if I had stepped into a black-and-white, 1950s, Colonel Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken TV ad. Social and political events downtown were all white except for the wait staff. Unlike Detroit, the white people were still living in Dallas proper.

I never heard the kind of angry obscene racial invective in Dallas that I had heard in Rochester. But Dallas was still a lot more isolated back then than it is now. I worried that maybe white people here were still so serene only because they hadn’t heard yet about the outcome of the Civil War. They behaved that way sometimes.

So take your pick. Crazy angry ex-Detroiters who sounded like Cuban refugees obsessed with the fact they had been pushed off their turf. Or white people who still used the n-word in front of black waiters but would tell you blandly that they meant no harm by it. Who’s the hero in that one?

Look. It’s great that white leaders in the former Confederate states are waking up to the offensiveness of Confederate symbols in today’s culture. This is all I am suggesting: How about white people in the rest of the country not screwing things up again by waving the bloody shirt? Just now.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze