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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

August 4, 2008

Written by C.N.

The Return of the Confederate Flag

As I’ve written about before, visual images can be very powerful forces in influencing our thoughts and actions. Most recently, we’ve seen this idea illustrated in regard to the controversy over The New Yorker’s cover cartoon depicting Michelle and Barack Obama. As another example, the Vietnamese American community continues to struggle with how to deal with images perceived to be associated with the communist government back in Viet Nam.

In this context and as the Christian Science Monitor reports, there seems to be a resurgence in displaying the confederate flag in various parts of the southern U.S. The flag’s supporters again claim that the flag is not about promoting White supremacy but about commemorating “southern valor” while its critics say it is inextricably tied into White supremacy:

Confederate flag raised in Georgia © Don Gleary/Christian Science Monitor

Despite years of boycotts, schoolyard bans, and banishment from capitol domes, the Southern battle colors are flying, higher than ever.

Indeed, the Tampa Confederate Veterans Memorial and its 139-foot flagpole features one of at least four giant “soldier’s flags” flying over bumper-to-bumper interstates in Florida and Alabama. [M]ore [are] planned in Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, and possibly South Carolina. . . .

Unlike the flags that were taken down from the capitol domes in Columbia, S.C. and Tallahassee, Fla., these new auto dealer-sized flags – sewn in China – may be legally untouchable. Raised on private property, the Tampa flag was OK’d by county zoning officials and the Federal Aviation Administration.

“It’s not going to go away,” says Jim Farmer, a history professor at the University of South Carolina at Aiken. “There is a subculture within the white Southern population, of which the SCV is the most visible voice, that feels besieged by modern culture in general, and they identify the Old South and Confederacy as a way of life and a period of time before the siege began to really hit the South.”

To Confederate sympathizers, opposition to the flag is misguided. They say the “soldier’s flag” represents not slavery, but the valor of Southern men in their lost cause. As proof of the flag’s universality, SCV officials point to a tableau at the June 1 flag-raising ceremony in Tampa. As several older white men huffed trying to raise the 72-pound flag, two black men stepped in to finish the job.

“We have Indian, Hispanic, black, and white members of our camps, and if anyone espouses anything hateful or racewise, you’re gone [from the SCV],” says group historian Robert Gates.

Flag opponents say the real offense is that Southern governors raised the flags during the Civil Rights era as a provocative gesture against attempts to desegregate Southern schools.

There are a couple of sociological lessons here. As I wrote regarding the New Yorker/Obama and Vietnamese American art controversies referenced above, visual images have an almost irrational power over many Americans. Secondly, just as statistics do not speak for themselves and can be interpreted in many ways, such visual images can also be used to support two complete different and opposite viewpoints and world views.

Such is the case with the confederate flag. It is also a given that the battle over whether the confederate flag represents southern valor or White supremacy will continue to rage. I won’t go into the details of that particular debate because people will continue to have their own interpretations based on emotion and personal experiences.

For me, what’s more interesting is the confederate flag’s resurgence and emergence as a reaction to and backlash against globalization.

As the article above notes, the confederate flag seems to enjoying greater acceptance these days, not necessarily because of its association with White supremacy, but because it represents a kind of yearning and nostalgia for how not just the south, but how America in general used to be, before the uncertainties of globalization.

In other words, the resurgence of the confederate flag can be seen as the latest illustration of America’s struggle to find or redefine its position and supremacy in the 21st century international and globalized stage. As many scholars will tell you, globalization has not been kind to many Americans, particularly those in the working class — the same demographic usually associated with confederate flag sympathizers.

So for them, as they struggle to come to terms with the effects of globalization on their lives, it is understandable that they would embrace the confederate flag as a symbol of America’s past dominance and supremacy.

As I’ve written about before, there are other examples of this kind of “backlash” as well. Probably the most visible up to this point has been the emotional debate regarding illegal immigration, but others include heightened criticism against China (although did you notice the irony in the article that the modern “supersized” confederate flags are actually made in China?).

The bottom line is, with many Americans struggling to adapt to globalization, nostalgic symbols of America’s past supremacy are inevitably going to become more popular and that, in such culturally and economically uncertain times, even “moderate” Americans are willing to overlook a particular symbol’s unfortunate association with racism.


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Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "The Return of the Confederate Flag" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2008/08/the-return-of-the-confederate-flag/> ().

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