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Driving around the Northland you can see the confederate flag displayed on vehicles. Do you ever wonder what motivates a person to display this symbol of racism and hate? This isn’t the deep south, Wisconsin and Minnesota men fought proudly for the Union, and we have a very small minority community. Why would anyone want, or feel the need, to publicly display this hateful southern symbol?
The confederate battle flag IS a symbol of hate. It is not merely an expression of pride in their “southern heritage,” as the apologists claim. Magnolia blossoms, mint juleps, and fried chicken don’t come to mind when you see this symbol. This flag reminds us of burning crosses, lynchings, and bombing of churches. There is a reason why the confederate flag is used by the Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazis, skinheads, and various anti-government militia groups. It is a symbol that resonates with a certain kind person. It is a symbol of rebellion against the federal government. It is a symbol of racism, antisemitism, anti immigrant nativism, and hate. In Germany, since displaying the Nazi swastika is illegal, the neo-Nazis use the confederate flag!
Displaying the confederate flag is not the same as flying a Finnish or Norwegian flag in your yard. There is no Finnish KKK. To my knowledge no one ever lynched their neighbor over an Ole and Lena joke. Your right to vote, or have an equal education, or sit anywhere on the bus was never limited because you were Swedish.
Recently the PBS program “FRONTLINE” aired “Documenting Hate: New American Nazis.” The program asked the question, “Where does the hate come from?” My answer is the hate has always been here in America. We delude ourselves if we think we are not a violent, racist society.
FRONTLINE interviewed Kathleen Belew, University of Chicago history professor and author of “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.” She said, “There is a connection between violence and the aftermath of war. Post war periods correspond to white power increases.” She has also said in the New York Times, “White-power activity in the United States is not new, nor has it been as shadowy as we may have imagined.” She describes the movement as having a diverse membership and being widespread across the country.
Public radio recently had a program on the Reconstruction period (“Deconstructing The Myths Of Reconstruction,” 1-A, November 19, 2018). Reconstruction was the 12 years of social and political restructuring in the former Confederate States after the Civil War. During this time, 53,000 blacks were murdered for their political activity. After Reconstruction failed, systematic segregation and the suppression of equal rights known as Jim Crow laws continued until the 1960s. During this time thousands of blacks were lynched or murdered all over the country.
Racism has been endemic from the very beginning of our country. Professor Jill Lepore in her recent book “These Truths: A History or the United States” points out that racism has been common in America since 1619 when the first African slaves were brought to Virginia. Slavery was a major issue during colonial times. Compromises that protected slavery were required in the writing of the Constitution. Unwillingness to limit slavery led to the Civil War. Many political battles since have been rooted in racism and the lingering sectional, cultural, political and economic animosities from that conflict. The denial of rights for Chinese and Japanese immigrants is another racist stain on our history. Racism and hatred of Native Americans have shaped the development of our country. The genocide of native peoples was made possible by the racist beliefs that these “savages” were godless and less than human. White, Christian “civilization” was superior and we had the Manifest Destiny to take it all. Professor Lepore discusses the many inconsistencies between our stated ideals of equality, opportunity, and “inalienable rights” and our actions.
White-on-white violence has also been common in our history. A recent “Nation” magazine article says between 1830 and 1860 there were at least 80 incidents of violence between members of Congress. In 1856, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina almost beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner to death with a cane on the floor or the Senate. All through our history there have been riots, killings, and police beatings of various immigrant groups, ethnic minorities, and labor activists. During the late 1800’s there were numerous violent range wars between cattlemen, homesteaders, and competing commercial interests in the West.
In 2017, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)identified 953 hate groups across the country. These include the KKK, Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, religious extremists, black nationalists, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic groups. Advocating violence is not a requirement for being listed as a hate group and there are other violent groups (gangs and militias) that are not listed as hate groups. In addition to hate groups, the SPLC lists 689 anti-government groups that were active in 2017 including 273 armed militias. The SPLC says Minnesota has 13 local cells of various hate groups and Wisconsin has 16.
We now have Islamophobia, immigrants being labeled as “criminals” who are “invading” the country, and mass shootings in churches and synagogues. Excessive use of force by police against blacks is common. Every day 96 people are killed with guns and hundreds more are shot and injured. The FBI says hate crimes rose by 17 percent in 2017 to 7,175 reported incidents. And we have politicians and talk show hucksters throwing fuel on the fires of hate.
Freedom comes with limits and responsibilities. Your right to swing your arm stops at the nose of your neighbor. Society has a right and obligation to restrict your freedom when it negatively impacts others. You do not have a right to incite violence or engage in intimidation and violence. Nor should people be allowed to form militias and to carry guns in public. When people march with the symbols of hate, like the confederate flag, torches, and burning crosses, they are engaged in terrorism. This is not protected free speech.
Even though the hate mongers are a small minority, they should concern all of us. It is time to rein in the hate mongers. A place to begin is with getting rid of the symbols of hate. We need more olive branches, white doves, peace signs, and rainbow coalition flags.