By Chris Lowe (July 21, 2015)
Boston, probably 1974. During conflict over school desegregation, supposedly, but mostly, not really over “busing.” At Government Center, near the New City Hall. I was in high school in a Boston suburb at the time.
Numbers of my FB friends were making the point in the last week or two that the U.S. flag has a racist history, along with the Confederate Battle Flag. Stanley Forman’s photo The Soiling of Old Glory is a stark example.
I don’t quite agree with the parallel, because racist uses of the U.S. flag have been contested in ways the CBF never was, and never could be. In this picture, the white racist is denying the claim of the black man to membership in the United States community, to citizenship, to equal rights, to equal education, to government action to secure those rights, by this use of the flag as a weapon. That was always what the CBF was. It was the flag of Chief Justice Roger Taney’s proclamation in the Dred Scott decision, that the black man had no rights that the white man was bound to respect.
In practice, the U.S. flag has often flown over discriminatory practices, by governments, enforced by governments, encouraged by governments, condoned by governments, insufficiently challenged by governments. Those practices were generally motivated by demands from majorities of white civil society, or acquiescence and lack of questioning. Yet the U.S. flag also was connected to broad assertions about equality in national ideology and civil religion that have been taken up by fighters for liberation and equality.
Of course, some of my friends raising the point were going deeper, to inherent problems with nationalism that cannot be separated historically from racism. Until after World War II race and nation were often used as synonyms, and there are inherent problems with modern states as oppressive institutions that mobilize violently irrational emotions using flags. But to me those are different issues than the anti-CBF pressures are addressing.