Symbols, Actions and American Racism

dukes_of_hazzardIn 1979, I was 10 years old and in fifth grade.  One of my favorite television shows during that time and well into the 80s, was the Dukes of Hazzard.  Being a car guy even then, I was fascinated by the bright orange 1969 Dodge Charger driving through the Georgia backwoods.

It didn’t hurt that Bo and Luke Duke were pleasing on the eyes.

The Dukes of Hazzard was a successful series for most of its six year run.  This is somewhat surprising in someways because of the symbols of the old South that were so present in the show.  The Duke boys car was named the General Lee.  Their nemesis was the county commissioner Jefferson Davis Hogg.  And of course, the General Lee had the Confederate Flag painted on its hood.  This was a show that was steeped in the Confederate era culture of the South and used the names and symbols of that era.

We’ve been having a discussion about the role of the Confederate Flag.  A number of people have been demanding that the state of South Carolina remove the flag from the state capitol grounds.  Politicians have fallen over themselves to share their agreement.  Maybe this is all good.  But as I argued recently, I worry that this is all window dressing for the really hard work that has to happen when it comes to dealing with racism in America.

But if we are going to demand that governments take the flag down, then we should all do some soul searching, because despite what others have said, the flag has an ambiguous meaning.  Over the last 35 years or so, the Confederate Flag has become a pop culture symbol.  The Dukes of Hazzard was the epitome of this.  A recent article in the Atlantic reminds us of just how embedded this symbol is in American culture:

The Confederate flag isn’t merely available as merchandise in big-box stores, or in mom-and-pop souvenir shops, or in the many crap-selling corners of the Internet. Its symbolism is also incorporated into the flags of seven—seven—different states. It has appeared in artwork both high and low, and on album covers, and at concerts, and on television, and in movies. It was used in a button for—if not necessarily produced bythe Clinton-Gore campaign of ‘92. It is the visual embodiment of Americans’ storied capacity to whitewash our own history: of the highways that are named for Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, of the statues of Lee, Davis, and CSA Vice President Alexander Stephens that remain in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall, of the multiple schools whose names pay tribute to Lee, Davis, and Stonewall Jackson.

The writer, Meagan Garber, adds that taking down a flag is a lot harder because this specific flag has become a meme. Removing the flag means contending with an entire culture that has appropriated the flag:

If the Confederate flag is to be “removed,” in any comprehensive way, from American infrastructures if not from American memories, the removal will have to contend not just with the flags that fly over state capitols, or with the images stamped onto government-issued license plates. It will also have to contend with Johnny Knoxville, with Lynyrd Skynyrd, with Tom Petty, with Kanye West—with all the flags and non-flags that, while they are no longer available for purchase at Walmart and Sears, remain available across the Internet. It will have to contend with the places that insist, contra history and common sense, that a flag is just a flag. And that history—even, and especially, history—can’t be painful in the present.

Which gets me back to the Dukes of Hazzard.  If the flag is to be removed from American culture, it means that not only must governments and merchants have to change, so do all of us.  Are we willing to apologize for watching the Dukes of Hazzard?  Are we willing to call out those that sell or use the flag, even friends.

In a recent blog post, I wrote that actions regarding racism should matter more than symbols like the Confederate Flag.  I wrote about what actual change has taken place in South Carolina since the civil war and the civil rights movement:

South Carolina has an interesting racial history.  Charleston was known for its slave markets.  The first shots of the Civil War took place here and the state was the first to secede from the Union.  So the Plametto State doesn’t have a great history when it comes to race relations- at least in the official history.

The funny thing about this state is that at least in recent history when it comes to race South Carolina has been doing things right, to the chagrin of Northern states.  Back in April of this year, a cop in North Charleston killed a black man, Walter Scott, who was running away from him.  We have seen a number of these run-ins before and its the same story: a white cop kills a black man and the highups do: nothing.  In New York, the cops who killed Eric Garner were not charged.  Same thing in Cleveland after the shooting of Tamir Rice.  Again and again an unarmed black man was shot and police and judges didn’t do anything.

North Charleston was different.  The policeman, Michael Slager was fired from the force.  The South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division , along with the FBI and the US Attorney General all started investigations.  Earlier this month, a grand jury indicted Slager of murder.

So here we have a police shooting taking place in the cradle of the Confederacy and they did what many of us have been asking for all this time.  And states in the North like Ohio, New York and Wisconsin have dithered on this issue.  The state that is known for a history or racism is the one that got this issue right.

The Bible calls for people to repent, to turn themselves around.  Is removing the flag an act of repentance? For the most part, yes.  However, the danger is that we remove the flag from state capitols and from daily life and yet have some of the same problems of racism persisting.  I will still have to worry if when I meet a cop will he see me as a citizen or a threat for no other reason than the color of my skin.

Sadly, the flag issue has sucked all the air out of the real issue regarding race in America.  The Confederate flag, if it is a cause at all is a symptom of a wider issue.  The killer of the nine at Emmanuel AME might have been pictured with a flag, but I want to know more about who taught him to hate black people so much that he would walk into a church to kill people.  The flag is sucking the air out of having a real conversation on white privilege and racism in America.  Whites can forego taking a good look at themselves and instead use the flag as a scapegoat for all that is wrong when it comes to race. Or as a New York Times reporter tweeted:

We need to have more discussions about the role of white privilege in our culture.  (Disciples pastor Brian Morse has an excellent essay on this, as does a Reformed Church in America pastor living in Lansing, MI who equates white privilege to riding a bike.)  The racial problems facing America go deeper than a flag of a long dissolved nation that lost a war.

This focus on the flag also allows people to do another thing: see racism as a Southern and not national problem.  As a number of states in the south move to get rid of confederate flags, it will make people in other parts of the county feel a bit more smug about themselves.  They can be proud that the Midwest or West or Northeast is not at all like those backwards idiots in the South.

Because, you know, racism like that never happens “up North.”

I don’t know if I should ask God to forgive me for watching the Dukes of Hazzard.  I’m guessing a lot of people won’t be, because even if they watched the show most people aren’t focused on what they have done, just what a state or business is doing.  Which is on par for race relations in the country: it’s someone else’s job- not mine.

By the way, Dukes of Hazzard merchandise will be sold without the Confederate Flag.  No word yet if the car will get a name change as well.


2 thoughts on “Symbols, Actions and American Racism

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  1. My July issue of Sojourners came today. It is a MUST READ all of you in this discussion. It puts much of the issues discussed here into focus – – issues that are much bigger than any flag. Two articles especially, “Reimagining the Bible Belt” and a “Miracle of Resilience”. If you aren’t subscribed, your local library may have a copy. If all else fails – – I will pay for a copy for you!

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