Pop quiz: How many brain cells does it take to acknowledge that the Confederate flag connotes racism and treason? How many brain cells does it take to demand that the flag be lowered from its 30-foot pole on the South Carolina Capitol grounds and banished forever?
Answer: More brain cells than the entire ’16 Republican field can apparently manage to muster.
They were shamed over the weekend by Mitt Romney, who tweeted this: “Take down the #Confederateflag at the SC Capitol. To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred. Remove it now to honor #Charleston victims.” And Mitt, to his credit, has been consistent about the flag for years. During a debate way back in 2007, he said: “That’s not a flag I recognize. That flag, frankly, is divisive, and it shouldn’t be shown.”
And yet, even now, after Confederate flag-waving white supremacist Dylann Roof has confessed to killing nine black people in the hopes of triggering a race war, none of the ’16 GOP aspirants have demanded that South Carolina remove the flag. None have dared articulate the kind of moral authority that we demand of our presidents. Their cowardice makes it abundantly clear, yet again, that the GOP is incapable of reaching beyond its white conservative base, to its own political detriment.
There’s no proof, of course, that the racist terrorist did what he did in Charleston simply because the flag flies at the Capitol in Columbia. But that’s the wrong metric. The flag was a vital ingredient in Roof’s toxic cocktail. The flag didn’t create his hatred of blacks; rather, it vetted his hatred. As a symbolic prop, it was as important to him as his easily-acquired gun. The flag alone didn’t prod him to murder, but it helped provide the (deluded) rationale for his acts. And the fact that the flag of racism flies at the Capitol, as required by state law, signaled to this loser that his bigotry was officially OK.
The flag’s defenders insist that it’s an ode to southern “heritage,” but that spin can’t obscure the hideous truth. It was a battlefield banner flown by soldiers whose mission was to kill Americans in order to protect the enslavement of human beings.
It’s right there in the historical record, for anyone who bothers to look. For instance, the editor of the influential Southern Literary Messenger wrote in 1863 that the stars n’ bars symbolized “the destiny of the Southern master and his African slave.” That same year, President Jefferson Davis vowed that his stars n’ bars soldiers would triumph in the end: “The day is not distant when the old Union will be restored with slavery nationally declared to be the proper condition of all of African descent.”
And yet, despite this historical reality, despite the fact that the Ku Klux Klan flew the flag when it wreaked domestic terror, despite the fact that Strom Thurmond’s 1948 Dixiecrat Party waved the flag in support of segregation, despite the fact that South Carolina’s leaders voted in 1961 to fly the flag on Capitol grounds beginning in ’62, to commemorate the Civil War’s centennial and defy the burgeoning civil rights movement (at the ’61 ceremony, Thurmond told an all-white crowd that nowhere in the U.S. Constitution “does it hint a purpose to insure equality of man”) and despite the flag’s obvious importance to Dylann Roof…despite all that, the GOP presidential candidates are still incapable of demanding the flag’s removal.
It’s too late for those nine victims, but this is about the future. This is about sending a moral message. Jeb Bush almost did it this weekend. He pointed out that when he was governor of Florida, “we acted, moving the flag from state grounds to a museum where it belonged.” But then he bailed: “This is obviously a very sensitive time in South Carolina and our prayers are with the families, the AME church community and the entire state. Following a period of mourning there will rightly be a discussion among leaders in the state about how South Carolina should move forward,” yada, yada.
Virtually all the candidates took refuge in state’s rights. To wit, Mario Rubio: “This is an issue that they should debate and work through and not have a bunch of outsiders going in and telling them what to do.” (Rubio neglected to mention that when Jeb removed the Confederate flag from the Florida Capitol, state lawmaker Rubio co-sponsored a bill to keep the flag on the Capitol grounds.)
Let’s see, who else….Scott Walker said, “The placement of a Confederate flag on the Capitol grounds is a state issue and I fully expect the leaders of South Carolina to debate this.” Ted Cruz said that he understands why some people are upset about the flag, but he also understands that some people want to honor “not the racial oppression, but the (flag’s) historical traditions,” ignoring the fact that racial oppression is the key historical tradition.
Let’s see, who else….Rick Perry weaseled, “Maybe there’s a good conversation that needs to be had.” Carly Fiorina said, “It’s up to the people of South Carolina.” John Kasich said, “It’s up to the people of South Carolina to decide.” Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina home boy, said the flag is “part of who we are.” Mike Huckabee, diving for cover, refused to take a stand: “Everyone’s being baited with this question as if somehow that has anything to do whatsoever with running for president.” Rand Paul refused to say anything at all.
So why are the Republican candidates so gutless (as if demanding the removal of a racist flag requires guts)? Why are they demonstrably less principled than even Mitt Romney (which should tell you something)?
Because, as we know, they’re terrified of ticking off the white conservatives who dominate the early presidential primaries, especially in South Carolina. They’re afraid to alienate the southern Republican voters who still revere the flag of treason, who remain willfully blind to past and present racial realities. In other words, moral cowardice is deemed to be prudent politics.
But this timid ‘tude doesn’t play well in the 21st century. If candidates can’t even summon the vowels and consonants to say, “Take the flag down,” how can they possibly hope to transcend their white base, resonate with a diverse electorate, and actually win a presidential election?
Conservative commentator Philip Klein, writing Friday in the conservative Washington Examiner, said it better than I can: “Conservatives who try to defend the flag, or who are afraid to criticize it, are only reinforcing the perception that supporters of limited government don’t really care about the historical or modern-day struggles of black America.”