The Confederate Flag A Symbol of Twisted Thinking

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By Carol McKibben

I love taking walks in my Carmel neighborhood where I have lived for more than 20  years with my husband and various members of our family. The eclectic style of homes nestled warren-like in weird neighborhood collections of old cottages, interspersed with modern architecture and warm, friendly community, always makes me appreciate this place even beyond its proximity to one of the most beautiful beaches anywhere on earth.

As a historian, I appreciate Carmel’s equally eclectic past. Once a great artist colony, it also became an intellectual and political center for Lincoln Steffens and so many others on the left, John Steinbeck among them. The Works Progress Administration installed an office in Carmel to help its majority population of writers and artists find work during the Great Depression. When homophobia raged in America during the Cold War (and into the present), the LBGTQ community found refuge in this liberal-minded town.

It is only very recently that Carmel has been aligned in the public mind with other communities of predominantly white elites. Yet those of us who live in the town know that the community of independent thinkers remains very much a part of life here. When I was out for a walk one day in my neighborhood, I realized with full force how twisted that spirit of nonconformity could become.

I stopped cold in my tracks when I saw a Confederate flag flying from the front porch of my neighbor’s house; it was a person I routinely exchanged pleasantries with, but clearly someone I didn’t know at all.

We are used to seeing that flag brandished in everything from marches for white supremacy to the recent attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6. It is not a benign political symbol. Rather, it is a chilling reminder of the worst of America, one exemplified by hate and violence.

"As a community, we need to challenge these inequalities [...] and end this hateful representation of our past embodied in the Confederate flag."

The Confederate flag symbolized the effort in the mid-19th century by people living in states located largely in the American South to sustain and spread an economic system based on the enslavement of other human beings. They justified their view by focusing on melanin in a person’s skin and on certain facial features. Humans with more melanin in their skin than others (or were thought to have even a tiny bit more) could be treated as though they were farm animals or farm equipment rather than as human beings. People with more melanin became nonentities, invisible as individual human beings, and were forced to labor unremittingly under the most horrific and cruel conditions without compensation until they died. They were routinely tortured.

Slaveholders treated slave families with ruthless indifference; casually and unceremoniously split them up, sold off individual members like livestock, tore babies and children from their parents, sold them to strangers, and sent away without regard for their vulnerability, health or safety, just like one would treat farm animals or mere commodities.  As a result of this horrendous cruelty and cold unconcern, slave families were lost to one another forever. This is what slavery was and worse. None of this is in dispute. It represents one of the most shameful periods in American history and it lasted for hundreds of years.

The enforced slavery of one group of human beings by another based on melanin levels and facial features was both absurd and fiercely defended because it produced great wealth. Slavers went to war and attempted to destroy the entire nation to maintain it with the Confederate flag as an emblem. They even persuaded poorer people, those who looked more like them, to fight too, even when the less well-off did not benefit economically from slave ownership. The Civil War was not about states’ rights. It was a war fought over whether or not America ought to maintain the evil of slavery as a foundation of its economy. As a country, we decided against it.

The harm slavery produced has lasted for generations and is still with us. It led directly to the development of ideologies such as scientific racism, a pseudo-science that perpetuated the ludicrous and farcical notion of innate inequality based on bizarre definitions of physical appearance.

Scientific racism in turn led to the eugenics movement, which became the rationale for all sorts of policies such as anti-miscegenation laws, citizenship and immigration exclusions, and land ownership restrictions, redlining in cities and towns, racial exclusions in neighborhoods and weirdly assigning property value to the perceived racial identity of the inhabitants. These policies became normative. Although many have been overturned, the absurd ideology behind them persists, invisible and usually denied by those who benefit most from systems of inequality that place people with the least melanin in their skin at the top of a human hierarchy and those with the most at the very bottom.

It will take generations working together to undo the untold damage that these almost incomprehensible, insurmountable wrongs did to millions of people and their children just because they had more melanin in their skin. However, the undoing and rebuilding does not just happen magically over time or just because slavery officially ended or just because we believe that we became more modern and liberal in our thinking.

As a community, we need to challenge these inequalities as we condemn and end this hateful representation of our past embodied in the Confederate flag.

We are in a time of our history in which we can’t allow for these displays of racism to go unchallenged, so after some thought I knocked on my neighbor’s door to ask him to bring it down. At first he seemed reluctant to do it, but eventually the flag went down. Those of us who have benefited the most from this country’s ugly past have a duty to advocate for a more inclusive, fair United States of America.

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Carol McKibben

About Carol McKibben

Carol Lynn McKibben is a distinguished lecturer of American History at Stanford University. She’s the author of Racial Beachhead (Stanford Press, 2012) and Beyond Cannery Row (University of Illinois), and the forthcoming Salinas: A History of Race and Resilience in an Agricultural City (Stanford Press, 2021)