Confronting America’s Red Flags

During last Wednesday’s insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob who believed that the 2020 presidential election had been “stolen” (despite an overwhelming lack of supporting evidence), a particularly disturbing event occurred: the presence of the Confederate battle flag inside the Capitol.

According to historians, the Confederate flag had never before flown through the halls of the Capitol as part of an act of insurrection. In “The New York Times,” Penn State professor and Civil War expert, William Blair said, “The Confederate flag made it deeper into Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, than it did during the Civil War.”

Initially, the Confederate States of America used a flag called “Stars and Bars,” which featured three alternating red and white stripes. The upper left corner of the flag displayed 13 stars on a blue background, representing the 13 secessionist states. Yet, in battle, Stars and Bars too closely resembled the flag of the United States of America, oftentimes causing lethal battletime confusion. To cement a separate identity and create a distinct pattern from that of the Union, the Confederates adopted a battle flag in 1861 with a white-star-adorned blue “X” over a red background. This red battle flag became the de facto flag of the Confederacy.

Let us consider what the Confederate battle flag actually symbolizes. During the Civil War, 13 states seceded from the Union in order to uphold the institution of slavery and the deeply-rooted racism invoked to defend it. The flag used in that cause has become an enduring symbol of insurrection, white supremacy, and anti-Black racism. There is no other way to put it. The creation and establishment of the Confederate battle flag underscored the intense desire to distinguish pro-slavery, secessionist states from the Union, and its modern use minimizes both the violence of slavery and its enduring legacy in systemic racism. Consider how groups like the Ku Klux Klan and segregationists use this flag for their causes.

Waving the red Confederate battle flag—the imagery of white supremacy—in the Capitol may appear an act of treason, but the true “red flag” of this country is the upholding of white supremacy through institutionalized racism, including direct government policies and the rhetoric by lawmakers who spurred on these rioters. While lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been quick to condemn the mob’s violence, sentiments such as “this isn’t who we are” isolate this tragic event from our country’s history. However, many BIPOC living in the U.S. have recognized that this attack exists in no vacuum—the imagery of a man carrying a Confederate flag is just one symbol of how the hatred and violence toward Black people centuries ago continues to persist in new ways. After renewed conversations about systemic racism and real-time violence against Black people made their way into predominantly white media sources in the summer, most would think that discussions of the white-supremacist nature of these riots would take precedence in the media. They haven’t.

There aren’t enough people talking about the other red flags: rioters wearing shirts that read “6MWE” (a neo-Nazi slogan that is disturbingly pro-genocide and anti-Semitic); the construction of a noose and gallows along the West Front of the Capitol building; or the fact that QAnon, the deeply anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist group responsible for coordinating many of the rioters, has vocal supporters within our Congress.

If we are to truly condemn the attack on our Capitol, denouncing extremism and holding government officials accountable for inciting violence is just the first step. We must reckon with this country’s ongoing legacy of white supremacy, which emboldened these rioters to storm the building with racist symbols. It would be deeply hypocritical to frame this racist violence as an attack on our American democracy—the same democracy that upheld slavery and Jim Crow for centuries, and that currently accepts mass incarceration and excessive police brutality toward Black people today. As such, we must actively challenge those who attempt to compare the violence of these riots to violence that occurred during Black Lives Matter protests this summer (93 percent of which, according to The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, were peaceful). The ideology and history of racism that drive and validate white supremacy are important pieces of why the Black Lives Matter movement exists today.

Preventing future attacks means considering the impact of anti-Blackness and anti-Semitism in our own lives, and actively taking a stand against them. So, while states like Mississippi may have just excised the Confederate symbol from their state flag, we must remember that this nation’s true “red flag” persists beyond the Confederate one.