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What the Confederate flag really means to America today, according to a race historian

Why is there a Confederate flag on the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol? (Video: Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

In the aftermath of Thursday's tragedy in Charleston, the U.S. and South Carolina flags flew at half-mast over the top of the South Carolina State House to honor the black victims of a hate crime. But flying high in front of the building was another symbol: a Confederate flag.

Some argue that the flag is a symbol of slavery and oppression, while others insist that it is purely a matter of Southern heritage and pride.

But too little of the conversation takes into account the flag's complicated history, according to Matthew Guterl, a professor of Africana and American studies at Brown University who studies race in the aftermath of the Civil War. Given his research, which has touched frequently on the use of the Confederate flag, Guterl says that he finds it impossible to argue that it's a neutral symbol.

I spoke with Guterl to learn what exactly people misunderstand about the flag, its history, and how that affects what it symbolizes today. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with what drives the mentality that has angered so many people. Why do people embrace the Confederate flag?

There are at least two reasons why people embrace the battle flag or the stars and bars, which was first used by the army of northern Virginia.

The first, which is a kind of surface explanation, is that they imagine that in that context the flag is a representation of Southern history, Southern heritage, and Southern culture. They tie it to questions of state’s rights, and the absence of federal oversight.

People see it as a symbol of the South as a bound and discrete place. A part of the heritage that’s being celebrated with it is that the South is the South, that the region has clear borders that might collate with the borders of the Confederacy. It’s bound up, in this sense, in the question of the South as a once nation.

But I also think that people invoke the flag because they want to endorse on some level, even if secretly or subconsciously, the very rationale for the Confederacy. When people say 'heritage not hate,’ they are omitting the obvious, which is that that heritage is hate. When someone says it’s about history, well, that particular history is inseparable from hate, because it is about hate. It’s about racism, and it’s about slavery.

I take it that you don’t approve of the use of the flag.

I object to the use of the flag for a few reasons. On the one hand, I don’t condone it because it’s a reflection of the great treason of the South in the 19th century, of its secession from the Union in defense of slavery, and its rejection of patriotism and nationalism. So just on political principles, the flag is a reminder that the South was once a rebellious and treasonous actor on the global stage.

But what is far more problematic is that there is no way to separate the fact that it is on all of those flag poles and on those license plates, that it's on t-shirts and coffee cups and other paraphernalia, precisely because it was resurrected in the 1940s and 1950s as part of a massive resistance campaign against the civil rights movement. It wouldn’t exist in our national popular culture without this moment, when African Americans fought for their equality, and the battle flag was recovered and redeployed as a symbol of opposition to it.

What was once a very blatant, full-throated defense of white supremacy has now become this gesture to heritage and history that is presented as though it has nothing to do with the civil rights movement. But it has everything to do with the civil rights movement.

Did the flag disappear in the years between the Civil War and the civil rights movement?

It was part of the collective nostalgia for the lost cause in the aftermath of the Civil War. So it wasn't completely absent. But the battle flag, even though it was part of that, wasn't a very memorable part. It was just part of the backdrop.

What would you say to someone who defends their use of the flag by arguing that for them it is ahistorical, that they grew up understanding that it is only a matter of Southern pride?

If I was in a good mood, I might say something like, ‘Well, I guess that this is the start of a conversation, and we should keep going. If that’s the topic sentence of the paragraph you’re writing, well, where is the rest of it?'

But if I was in a bad mood, as I have been increasingly of late, I might tell them that they are delusional, or that they are refusing to look in the mirror, or that they can’t bring themselves to acknowledge what would probably be very painful for them to acknowledge, which is that by flying that flag, they are perpetuating the sense of rage and despair that leads a young man to walk into a church with a gun and shoot nine people.

If you celebrate the hoisting of a battle flag in front of your state’s capitol, and you have roads all over your state that are named after Confederate generals, and you celebrate this 19th century past, it should surprise absolutely no one when people pick up on this and imagine that the South is still at war with the North over whether blacks deserve rights and representation, or even life.

The reaction by the Sons of Confederate Veterans has been to call Dylann Roof a bigot and racist who desecrates the Confederate flag. What do you make of that?

You can’t expect the Sons of the Confederate Veterans to say otherwise. What are they going to say? That finally somebody gets it, that this is what we’ve been lobbying for all along?

One of the great stories of the past few decades is how white supremacist organizations have adopted the language of the civil rights movement and have come to sound like minority multicultural organizations. They say that they are only lobbying for their respective traditions and beliefs to be celebrated alongside those of other people’s. They want a white history month, because it's only fair.

But just because someone says something doesn’t make it honest. And it certainly doesn’t make it true.

You've talked about how we live in this weird moment, where there are competing representations of the truth. What did you mean by that, and how does it affect this conversation?

I think that it’s a huge part of this problem. It’s often the case in journalism, especially broadcast journalism, to present both sides of an issue, and then leave them in this unresolved tension. The thought is that by doing so, what one has set up is a kind of fair portrayal of the debate, one that encourages people to become more informed and then choose sides. But that’s not actually how history works.

There aren’t always multiple ways to tell a story because all the ways aren’t equally valid or truthful. Anyone should be able to pick up a series of historic texts, sift through the evidence themselves, and then come to the unshakable conclusion that the battle flags presence in contemporary American culture is a consequence of lingering commitments to racial prejudice.

The reason we give equal credence to both sides of a story that only really has one true side has so much to do with the last couple decades of media journalism, and the rising conservative critique of a liberal education and critical thinking. It’s about the emergence of Fox News and alternate spaces that demonize or reject conventional histories of things. Just yesterday, Fox News suggested that the shooting was about religious liberty, which is perhaps the most ridiculous and farcical thing ever uttered on that network.

You also have this war on history standards in text books, which is another conversation entirely. But just consider that in Texas many history books are draped in nostalgia for a regrettable period in our country’s past. You can imagine what that does to the psyche of people who grow up in a system like that.

Do you think it's possible for someone to embrace the flag without explicitly or implicitly promoting racism? 

The short answer is no.

Wearing the flag or celebrating it, putting it on your car window or coffee table in your house, it's a reminder to everyone, to every guest, to every person who sees it, black or white, that you are a stakeholder in the Confederate history of the South, and therefore the defense of slavery and racial prejudice. No one is immune to this.

Even to say that it’s about heritage not hate, is to recognize that for many people it is inextricably about hate. You can’t filter out the racism and leave what’s pure and historical in the flag, because that purity doesn’t exist. Some things are so primitively stained or tarnished by history that that can never be set side. The flag is a perfect example.

What about the South more generally? Is it wrong to celebrate the South?

Not at all. But if you want to celebrate the South, there are a thousand things you can pick up, and put out on display, without pissing people off or gesturing to the history of racism in this country. The Southern culture is an amazingly rich and fascinating thing, but to choose the flag as what you’re going to trot out to celebrate great grandpa's role in the army of Northern Virginia is only useful if you want to implicate your ancestors and their war to defend slavery.