An group protests a KKK rally by holding up signs delcaring love.

In Athens, Atlanta in September, 2007, a group protests a KKK rally. The Klan is discussing holding another rally in response to the anti-Confederation flag movement. Credit: CreativeCommons / 57allison.

For literally decades, calls have gone out by civil and human rights advocates to remove of the battle flag of the Confederacy from public sites like state capitol grounds and other government buildings. This movement gained enormous momentum recently following the brutal racist murders of nine parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charlestown, South Carolina by an avowed white supremacist.

On his Facebook page, the 21-year-old gunman posed for pictures wearing a military-style jacket with insignia patches of flags of apartheid South Africa and white ruled Rhodesia (today known as Zimbabwe). In another picture, he waved a Confederate battle flag, and in another, he stood holding a burning American flag. In addition, he wore a T-shirt with the number 88 printed on the front, he had 88 Facebook friends, and he scribbled that number in the South Carolina sand. “H” is the 8th letter of the alphabet, and in white supremacist circles, “88″ symbolizes “Heil Hitler.”

To their credit, a number of conservative political leaders in positions of power have finally called for the flag’s dismantling. During a recent press conference, South Carolina Republican Governor Nikki Haley asserted:

“Today we are here in a moment of unity in our state without ill will to say it is time to remove the flag from our capitol grounds. This flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state.”

Republican Alabama Governor Robert Bentley ordered that all four Confederate flags must go from the Confederate memorial at the state capitol in Montgomery. And Mississippi state House of Representatives Speaker, Philip Gunn, called for a change in that state’s official flag by deleting the Confederate flag symbol that has adorned the flag’s corner since 1894. Said Gunn:

“We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us. As a Christian, I believe our state’s flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed. We need to begin having conversations about changing Mississippi’s flag.”

In addition, Georgia officials ordered the redesign of current state license plates by expunging the two Confederate battle flags boldly stamped in clear view.

Though of no real surprise, not all individuals and groups call for the flag to go. Most on this side of the debate use the argument that the flag does not represent racism and white supremacy, per se, but rather, represents Southern pride and Southern history more generally. For example, the so-called Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) Pelham, North Carolina chapter recently reserved the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse to hold a rally in support of maintaining the Confederate flag for public display at that site.

According to the Grant Titan (which sounds ominous to me) of the KKK chapter, James Spears, the purpose of the rally is to protest “the Confederate flag being took (sic) down for all the wrong reasons. It’s part of white people’s culture.”

Of particular interest (a.k.a. here as absurdity, irrationality, outlandishness, and lunacy), the arguments put forward by the group include that removing the flag is tantamount to committing “cultural genocide.” On its website, which includes the Confederate flag, the group demands: “Say No to Cultural Genocide….[M]ost groups out there and especially white people are to [sic] cowardly to stand up for their heritage.”

By positioning themselves as the victims in this drama, the white supremacists have misappropriated the terminology of actions they have historical perpetrated upon others.

“Cultural Genocide”

Joel Spring discusses the concept of “cultural genocide” defined as “the attempt to destroy other cultures” through forced acquiescence and assimilation to majority rule of cultural and religious standards. This cultural genocide works through the process of “deculturalization,” which Spring describes as “the educational process of destroying a people’s culture and replacing it with a new culture.”

Dominant European-heritage groups have committed cultural genocide upon minoritized peoples since the first white person landed on these shores. Later, for example, between 1880 and 1920, in the range of thirty – forty million immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe migrated to the United States, more than doubling the population. During this time, an “Americanist” (assimilationist) movement was in full force with the concept of the so-called “melting pot” in which everyone was expected to conform to an Anglo-centric cultural standard with the destruction of other cultural identities.

Theodore Roosevelt was an outspoken proponent of this concept:

“If the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself (sic) to us he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else….But this [equality] is predicated on the man’s (sic) becoming in very fact an American and nothing but an American….There can be no divided allegiance here….We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language, for we want to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house.”

Another example of “cultural genocide” and “deculturalization” can be exposed in the case of Christian European American domination over Native American Indians, whom European Americans viewed as “uncivilized,” “godless heathens,” “barbarians,” and “devil worshipers.” So until the 1960s, a pattern emerged (what some social scientists termed the “immigrant analogy”) in which white ethnic groups initially migrated to cities, assimilated into the dominant Anglo culture, and achieved a certain degree of upward mobility. They often times, therefore, relinquished their cultural identities for the promise of social and economic success.

Many of these same social scientists assumed that people of color (then called “minorities” or “racial minorities”) would follow this model. However, they did not fully comprehend the profound saliency of “race” and racism in the United States, the ethnic consciousness of some groups, and their desire to retain their cultural heritage.

By the late 1960s, communities of color, as well as some white ethnic groups – predominantly from working-class backgrounds – and women in a new wave of the feminist movement, reacted against this ruthless “Americanization” process and the “melting pot” and demanded rather the creation of a “patchwork quilt” or “salad bowl” in which each group – while joining with other groups – would, nonetheless, retain its unique cultural traditions and identities.

Later joined by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans* activists, advocates for youth and the elderly, people with disabilities, and working class people, a push was underway to “decenter” the standard school curriculum and teach from multiple (multicultural) perspectives. The multicultural movement was founded on the principle that multiple voices and multiple perspectives must be represented in order to ensure a well rounded education for all students, and to aid in the identity development process so essential to young people.

Back to KKK

So I ask the KKK, how exactly do you define, as you term it, “white people’s culture”?

Let’s be clear here: the Confederate battle flag no more represents white Southern culture anymore than the swastika flag represents Gentile German culture. What these flags do have in common, though, is that they both symbolize Christian white supremacy, terrorism, treason, separation, exclusion, enslavement, murder, and in the United States, yes, cross burnings.

The Confederate flag exemplifies an economic system built literally on the backs and the blood of enslaved African peoples. It epitomizes a brief, ignoble, and tragic period in time, and not Southern culture in its nuanced enormity.

Not flown much in the South following the Civil War, many conservative politicians and others reimposed the Confederate flag during the early 1960s in reaction to the civil and human rights initiatives then sweeping the country to end Jim Crow segregation and to improve the mistreatment of people of color throughout the country.

The Confederate flag does not represent pride, but rather, it symbolizes the worse aspects of humanity’s inhumanity: actions committed by individuals and groups like the KKK itself. White supremacists’ attempts to transform themselves in the public imagination from perpetrator of terrorism to innocent victim smacks not only as hollow and disengenuous, but more so, it shows the group’s utter contempt for the intelligence of the people across our nation.

If anyone desires a flag representing Southern culture, choose symbols that have positively impacted people of all social identities, the proud and positive contributions the people of the South (not only white people) have made to the overall betterment and unity of the United States and the world.

If, however, the KKK and other white supremacist groups persist in addressing issues of “cultural genocide,” they need to educate themselves regarding the lived experiences of African Americans, most of whose ancestors were stolen from their families, their cultures, their homelands and dumped in chains into cargo holds aboard ships; exported like lumber or grain; and if they survived the voyage, forced to stand naked on foreign shores in all types of weather conditions, examined, and sold to the highest bidder like beasts of burden to perform grueling and hazardous unpaid labor; forbidden to learn to read or attain any level of education outside their required plantation tasks; coerced to relinquish their language and all their cultural traditions; made to take on the language and religion of their abusers; separated from their parents, children, and partners; tortured; and killed.

Because of this horrific legacy, many African Americans do not know from which of the African nations their ancestors came. Many do not know of their familial origins because of white supremacy! And in spite of it all, with the physical and emotional scares still lingering in the descendents of enslaved peoples of the Americas, and with bodies straight and heads lifted, as individuals joining in a mighty and glorious chorus sounding together demanding, Enough is enough! The flag must come down as a symbolic step in finally and truly dismantling the white supremacy that has plague this land ever since Europeans first set sail.

The U.S. Civil War has long since ended! Though the Southern states made a valiant effort to maintain their economic system built on the institution of slavery, the Confederacy lost the war. The South must finally move on!

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), co-author with Diane Raymond of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).


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