Confederate flag and N-word defenders use the same lame argument

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

The Confederate flag has taken center stage in the media as South Carolina is expected to finally remove it from their state capitol following the massacre of nine black Americans at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Since the nation is focused on getting rid of relics of hate, then perhaps we should turn our attention to another.

According to the African-American Registry, no group has been described by as many derogatory terms as black people, and the n-word stands alone in the depth of its meaning and the harm it causes:

No matter what its origins, by the early 1800s, it was firmly established as a derogative name. In the 21st century, it remains a principal term of White racism, regardless of who is using it…The word, n*gger, carries with it much of the hatred and disgust directed toward Black Africans and African Americans. Historically, n*gger defined, limited, made fun of, and ridiculed all Blacks. It was a term of exclusion, a verbal reason for discrimination. Whether used as a noun, verb, or adjective, it strengthened the stereotype of the lazy, stupid, dirty, worthless nobody. No other American surname carries as much purposeful cruelty.

PBS noted that during slavery times, the word “black” or “n*gger’ was inserted in front of the slave’s given name in order to distinguish the slave from a local white person of the same name. Hence, “Black Joe” or “N*gger Joe.”  While the usage of the word is complex, and the word is embraced by youth culture, adults generally shun the word as harmful and offensive. Typically, the word is deemed offensive when used by whites towards blacks, and whites use that word at their own peril.

The n-word has been embraced by some in the black community, as oppressed groups tend to do in an effort to reclaim and defuse derogatory terms used against them. Many people — most notably rappers — will even argue that altering the spelling of the word to n*gga signifies a change in its meaning. Teaching Tolerance editor Sean Price of the Southern Poverty Law Center noted that the n-word, even when used as a term of endearment, has been unable to shed its baggage as an intentionally derogatory word.

“The poison is still there. The word is inextricably linked with violence and brutality on black psyches and derogatory aspersions cast on black bodies. No degree of appropriating can rid it of that bloodsoaked history,” Price said. “If you could keep the word within the context of the intimate environment [among friends], then I can see that you could potentially own the word and control it. But you can’t because the word takes on a life of its own if it’s not in that environment.”  Noting the difficulties arising when discussing the public vs. private uses of the word, Price noted that Jesse Jackson, who was one of the first people to call for an n-word moratorium, was caught using the n-word while on a live mic during a so-called private conservation.

In 2007, the NAACP staged a mock funeral for the racial slur, and yet today, the word is as popular as ever, as the Washington Post concluded last year. But could the attention paid to the Confederate flag cause us to take another look at the n-word and decide to put it away for good? After all, the parallels between the two powerful concepts, one a word, the other a symbol, are clear. Both have been used — often at the same time — to terrorize black men and women and to make the case for oppression. One might even say the Confederate flag is the n-word flying on a pole.

The word has power, and President Obama demonstrated that by using it — although in a non-gratuitous way —  to make a point about racism, how America is not cured of it, and how racism goes beyond the n-word and overt discrimination.

What’s ironic is that backers of both the n-word and the flag use similar arguments to justify keeping these relics of hate active in our society today. Just as supporters of the n-word would say the slur has been transformed into a term of endearment, supporters of the Confederate flag argue the rebel battle emblem has come to represent Southern pride and heritage.

From its inception, the Confederate flag was a symbol of white supremacy and the subjugation of black people.  The purpose of South Carolina and ultimately the other Southern states seceding from the Union was over their right to keep black people in chains and  “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery.”

After the Civil War,  the rebel flag was a logo for states’ rights, segregation and the Dixiecrat Party, used by the Ku Klux Klan and by the Whites Citizens’ Councils — the white-collar Klan — to wage terror against black people.  After the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, states in the former Confederacy began to fly the rebel flags over state houses and incorporate the Confederate emblem into their state flags as an act of resistance to racial integration.

Meanwhile, over the years, a movement has emerged by conservative whites to whitewash the white supremacy out of the Confederate flag and the Confederacy itself, recasting the Civil War as a struggle over states’ rights and taxes rather than slavery and rebranding the South in a positive and righteous light. Researcher Ed Sebesta wrote recently in that the neo-Confederate movement has been under the radar screen for years yet is influential and part of the establishment, the movers and shakers in power. “The flags and monuments may come down but the neo-Confederate movement is still there. They are still generally not known to the public and they are still having an enormous impact,” Sebesta wrote. “For example, the Politically Incorrect Guide to American History is a New York Times best seller, it is written by Thomas Woods, a leading neo-Confederate. The American conservative movement is learning its American history from a neo-Confederate,” he added.

The n-word, not unlike the Confederate flag, was born from a place of hate. And we must understand this. These two symbols are not the be all and end all, but symbols do matter. And now is the time that we stop wasting energy supporting them and let them go.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove