Confederate flags flying over state buildings, a city slating a picture of Robert E. Lee for a place of honor and the chief justice of the United States leading lawyers and judges in singing "Dixie." What the devil is going on?

A resurgence of racism, according to some civil rights activists. An innocent effort at honoring Southern tradition, says a second group. Ho-hum, says a third.

For many black Americans, the Confederate flag, under which the secessionist South marched into the war to preserve slavery, has become the symbolic equivalent of the "N word"; its meaning is uniform -- and negative -- no matter how those who use it describe their intent. It evokes a refusal to accept the outcome of the Civil War (as surely as "Dixie" evokes white Southern nostalgia for the good old days when black folk were happy slaves).

It's not a silly view. The Council of Conservative Citizens, which is aligned with the pro-Confederate flag movement across the South, might be thought of as the segregationist White Citizens Councils in a business suit. Their pro-white positions are hardly distinguishable (save for the more gentlemanly tone) from the posturing of the Ku Klux Klan.

And although some folk argue that the point of displaying the Stars and Bars is culture and heritage -- honor for forebears who fought bravely to defend principle, not just slavery -- it is often a great deal more than that. Ask black Alabama legislator Alvin Holmes who won a years-long fight to have the Confederate battle flag removed from atop the state capitol -- a site states traditionally reserve only for the U.S. flag and their own state flag.

In Georgia and Mississippi, the state flag incorporates the Confederate flag, prompting a different sort of battle. But is it reasonable to suppose that everyone who honors the flags of those two states also despises black folk and longs for a return to slavery? Does anybody really imagine that Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who led a recent 4th Circuit Judicial Conference in the singing of "Dixie," was signaling his support for the Confederacy and its discredited ideals? Then what was signaled by the singing of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which he also led?

Sometimes the symbols don't symbolize much of anything. But sometimes they do, and that's the source of the confusion. There was confusion to spare when Richmond, having created Canal Walk along the James River as a tourist attraction, decided to adorn the walk with a mural of Lee, the Confederate general and revered son of Virginia. Black Richmonders exploded, one of them offering this elegant summary: "If Lee had won, I'd still be a slave."

The portrait came down. But one wonders how much good that did -- which is one of the reasons I hate these battles over symbolism. They can occupy your energies and your resources and still leave you with nothing worthwhile, even when you win. (A friend just reminded me of the jubilation of African Americans a while back when the Pennsylvania legislature passed a Martin Luther King Day amendment to a banking bill. "The main bill affected more black lives, and far more profoundly, than the King Day legislation," he said. "And there weren't two black members of the legislature who could tell you a damn thing about what was in the main bill.")

The dilemma, of course, is that you dare not ho-hum each of these battles as they crop up -- even paranoiacs can have real enemies -- yet you don't want to be a sucker for every slight, intended or not, that catches your eye.

As people who have relied heavily on symbols, from King's Birthday to kente cloth, to assert our pride of heritage, we want to be chary of denying other people the right to their symbols -- particularly when they may represent an attempt to retrieve some honor from defeat. What, in such cases, should our attitude be?

Maybe we should borrow the idea of the former U.S. Marine Commandant David M. Shoup, who hated those leather-sheathed swagger sticks Marine officers used to carry as much as some of us despise the Stars and Bars. Instead of banning their use, however, Shoup simply announced that the officers could dispense with the swagger sticks -- unless they felt a need for them.