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The Real Reason the Confederate Flag Bothers Me

By Caroline S. Engelmayer
By Julius E. Ewungkem, Crimson Opinion Writer
Julius E. Ewungkem ‘24 is a Crimson Editorial editor.

As I watched the insurrection at the United States Capitol unfold last month, I was surprised at the amount of diversity I saw throughout the crowd. I’m not talking about cultural, racial, or even religious diversity, but rather the myriad of different flags and related political symbols littered across the Capitol. On the one hand, some of these flags were familiar: The Betsy Ross flag of the original 13 colonies and the generic “Trump 2020” and “MAGA” banners were all strewn across Capitol Hill. On the other hand, I saw many I didn't recognize. There was a white flag with a red cross, a yellow flag with three red stripes, a green flag with black and white stripes, and many more.

However, one flag stood out to me from among the rest, and it was the one I had seen countless times before. With its sharp red background and intersecting blue stripes filled with white stars, the Confederate flag stuck out from the sea of colors. I eventually learned that many of the unfamiliar flags represented various far-right movements that I detest, ranging from QAnon to the Proud Boys. Still, the presence of the Confederate flag bothered me the most.

Why? So many of these movements start from the same misinformed hate, but that specific flag bothered me more.

This is the question I asked myself as I struggled to understand the reasoning behind the flag's appearance at the Capitol. As a Black person, that Confederate flag has always represented the beliefs of a people who fought to uphold the enslavement of my entire race. And while not everyone has this same background, what has always confused me is that it seems that the most outwardly patriotic Americans are the same ones who fly the Confederate flag with pride. It’s paradoxical — the Confederates took up arms against the “beloved” Union, so their existence should be hated, right? Clearly not, and for many, it is the exact opposite.

A poll taken by the Morning Consult and Politico in July of 2020 found that 43 percent of voters still believe that the Confederate flag represents “Southern pride” — including 74 percent of Republicans. It’s unnerving. And this revision of history doesn’t seem to just stop with the flag. There seems to be a prevailing theme throughout America that the United States Civil War was about anything but slavery.

For example, in December of last year, a popular conservative media company, PragerU, posted a now-deleted video defending Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s legacy, going so far as to imply that one of his greatest accomplishments was “crushing an attempted slave rebellion by radical abolitionist John Brown.” PragerU isn’t a small company; it has more than 2.86 million subscribers on Youtube and has amassed over a billion views on its videos. Millions of people are consuming and further spreading this material, and it only continues the cycle of misinformation.

Still, many people who understand the history of the Civil War do believe that it is an important enough reason to put away the Confederate flag, but to them, the issue just seems trivial. I’ve heard many comments like, “Why are we worrying about this, aren’t there much more prevalent issues in the world right now?” and “The Civil War ended ages ago — things can change, right?” Or, ironically, “Most Black people don’t even care that much, so let’s just move on.”

And surprisingly, I somewhat agree. The Confederate flag itself isn’t the most pressing issue in the world, and it isn’t even too common in urban areas where most Americans live. However, the real issue is that the flag represents the distrust many Americans have of scientific and historical consensus.

It doesn’t surprise me that 15 percent of Americans believe we have currently taken enough steps to fight climate change or that 10 percent of us believe vaccines cause autism, with 46 percent unsure. If issues like these remain contested, what do we expect to do for more layered problems like healthcare, immigration, and education reform? These people are our voting population — and when 43 percent of them still cannot recognize what the Confederate flag truly stands for, it’s not surprising that America is extremely slow to move forward.

So to answer my own question, the Confederate flag bothers me because it represents the deep dissemination of falsehoods into society that powerful actors don't do enough to dismantle. Harvard affiliates benefit from the social clout the school carries, and that should come with the responsibility to push back against false information. Many Harvard graduates go on to fill powerful leadership roles within society, and their voices all hold weight. As a collective, we can fight against many of the false narratives pushed in society.

We live in a democracy, and the people themselves have to agree on our history before any meaningful social change can occur. This just hasn’t happened yet. While I continue to be optimistic, something tells me that America is in for a very long ride towards reunification with fact.

Julius E. Ewungkem ‘24 is a Crimson Editorial editor.

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