Not unlike Yale, my Virginia high school did not excel at football. We were trounced annually in our own miniature version of The Game by our archrival, Christiansburg High. To compensate for our athletic humiliation, our most popular school chant declared, “C-burg’s a worm!” So I must confess to some schadenfreudic glee when, last year, C-burg appeared on the national news, protesting the schoolwide ban on the Confederate flag by sporting their finest rebel regalia and looking rather silly.
The college town where I grew up could almost pass for a Washington, D.C. suburb. The university in town attracts plenty of liberal-minded Northern transplants. But just a town away, Southern pride dominates, and the Confederate flag — as in much of the South — remains a contentious issue. My extended family has learned that the good old stars and bars, like immigration and labor unions, is a subject unfit for family get-togethers. Its defenders argue that it is a symbol of their heritage and regional pride, shamefully appropriated by white supremacists. (We still name our universities after Robert E. Lee and my neighbors know the names of ancestors killed fighting for the Confederacy.)
To others, myself included, the Confederate flag does not just represent a benign regional history. Instead, it represents the fight to preserve slavery and the ongoing legacy of white supremacy. It lives on stamped on license plates, standing in backyards and until recently, flying over the South Carolina Statehouse: not exactly social justice. Not to mention the sometimes-manic passion with which certain Southerners, like the students at C-burg, cling to it. Although I rarely see the Rebel flag north of D.C., the not-always-civil debate over how to face the evils of our history exists everywhere.
Perhaps, as Yale continues to face the specter of one John C. Calhoun, class of 1804, we can learn something from Virginia’s dilemma. There are differences of course. I’ve not known anyone to wear Calhoun’s name or face as a cape: Clearly, few defenders of keeping the name are willing to defend the name itself. Yet both are relics of America’s history of slavery, and both pose dilemmas as to how we deal with that history.
For both debates, defenders invoke free speech and dismiss challenges as political correctness. And indeed, if owners of Confederate flags were prosecuted or fined, we might be taking things a step too far. Yet for institutions to keep these symbols in their place of honor in the name of free speech is to glorify their racist legacy without question. Institutions affiliated with the government, or institutions of education that intend to serve all its citizens or students, ought to be especially careful about what historical legacies they celebrate.
One of the most common defenses I’ve heard of Confederate paraphernalia is that it is a symbol of Southern culture unrelated to slavery and racism. This glorification of an ugly past is disturbingly naive, just like nostalgia for the “simpler times” of the mid-20th century. Whatever historical arguments are made for the true causes of slavery, the fact is the Confederate flag was first flown by a slaveholding society and never escaped this legacy. To remove it from this context is an airbrushing of history.
University President Peter Salovey, in announcing the Yale Corporation’s decision to keep the name, cited the reverse argument: To change the name of the College Formerly Known as Calhoun would be the real airbrushing of history. I’ve heard the same thing said about the Confederate flag. But simply leaving a building with a controversial name or letting your flag fly does nothing to confront a legacy of oppression, nor does it do anything to make amends. We are not in danger of forgetting slavery, certainly not when the legacy of institutionalized racism is in our poverty rates, our jail cells and our police force. To leave white supremacists and Rebel flags in places of honor seem to me an act of laziness, moral amnesia. It doesn’t interact with these symbols, merely lets them be, and in the interest of preserving history does nothing to change the present or write a different future. The evils of history cannot be undone but they can be confronted, in textbooks that reject the myths of American exceptionalism and perfection or in legislation and activism that dismantles the institution of oppression. To remove these symbols from places of pride is to confront them, to reject them, to begin to design a different present.
Sara McCartney is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .