The Confederate flag in the 21st century: What does it really stand for?

On Saturday Sept. 28, a group called Virginia Flaggers hoisted up the Confederate flag along a stretch of Interstate 95 near Richmond, Va., the former capital of the Confederacy. The event reignited a contentious debate over the legacy of the Confederate flag and its symbolism. Those who believe in displaying the rebel flag simply do not understand the depth of history imbued in the image.

Virginia Flaggers founder Susan Hathaway said, “The sole intention of this is to honor our ancestors.”

It seems like an innocuous motive until you fully realize what that entails.

Writing in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates said, “It is not simply that the flag is offensive. It is that it is the chosen symbol of slaveholders and those who wanted to live in a republic rooted in slaveholding.”

This is what so many fail to grasp about the Confederate flag. For all the talk of the heritage and sacrifice it represents, there is no talk about what that heritage and sacrifice is rooted in.

Coates also said that when the Civil War started, the total value of enslaved black people in the country was $3 billion, a sum larger than the values of every factory and railroad in America combined. According to Coates, cotton from the South accounted for 59 percent of the country’s exports in 1836.

Some historians will claim that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights; they are completely wrong. The Civil War was fought by the Confederacy to protect the institution of slavery in the South and ensure its expansion to newly forming states in the West.

Therein lies the problem of Confederate regalia. There exists a tremendous dissonance in displaying the flags of slavery apologists while insisting it stands for something other than slavery. At the very least, it represents a yearning for a bygone era in which blacks were considered subhuman.

Groups like Virginia Flaggers, as well as individuals, who display the Confederate flag, must realize that the flag is not simply a symbol of their Southern forefathers. It, like all flags, carries with it the guiding ideologies of those who flew it. In the case of the Confederacy, the guiding ideology is that slavery is an institution worth dying to defend.

As a Northerner who feels no kinship with the South or its heritage, I recognize that I cannot just tell those who feel a connection to the flag to no longer feel that way. Rather, I would encourage an objective examination of exactly what place the flag has in 2013. I do not believe that everyone who advocates for the display of the flag is racist, but I do think that they are sorely lacking the perspective that would make them rethink their devotion to this horrific symbol.

The institution of slavery severed families, killed millions and laid the foundation for the systematic inequality faced by African-Americans today. That is what the Confederacy sought to preserve. That is what those who first waved the rebel flag gave their lives. Every time a Confederate flag goes up, whether it is the intent of the owner or not, that is what is being celebrated.