What to make of those in the south who claim the Confederate flag as part of a properly American southern heritage? Ta-Nehisi Coates is eloquent:
But people can fly the Confederate Flag and have a serious, evidently credible argument, about its “precise meaning,” mostly because of a long historical fight to make the Civil War, and hence its symbols, about something other than slavery. Again, there’s a reason we don’t think of Abraham Lincoln as being murdered by a white supremacist. There’s a reason why we sing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” instead of, say, “The Night They Drove Fort Pillow Down.”
Formulating the question as “Is Lynyrd Skynyrd racist?” or “Are people who fly the Confederate flag racist?” or “Can you fly the flag and be progressive?” misses the point. The better question is posed to the young man, or woman, who would fly the flag today. Simply put, it’s “How well do you know the history of the symbols you claim?” It really is that simple. It’s not “Are you a racist?” it’s “Are you conscious?” Christopher Hitchens says it well:
The political flag of the Confederacy–the so-called “Stars and Bars”–is one thing. The battle flag of the Confederate army, the most militant symbolic form that secession and slavery ever took, is quite another. Under this fiery cross of St. Andrew, the state of Pennsylvania was invaded and free Americans were rounded up and re-enslaved. Under this same cross, it was announced that any Union officer commanding freed-slave soldiers, or any of his men, would be executed if captured. (In other words, war crimes were boasted of in advance.) The 13 stars of the same flag include stars for two states–Kentucky and Missouri–that never did secede, and they thus express a clear ambition to conquer free and independent states.
Perhaps the proverbial young person is indeed conscious, and does know the history. But when I hear them claim that they are “co-opting” the flag, I think probably not.