Racism or just plain ignorance?

June 16, 2008

by Ivan Raconteur

The case of the three suburban rednecks who were prevented from participating in Kennedy High School commencement ceremonies because they flew confederate flags from their giant trucks in the school parking lot probably has more to do with plain old garden-variety ignorance than with racism.

The incident may have had slightly different connotations had it taken place in, say, Alabama or South Carolina, where the symbolism of the flag goes much deeper, but it took place in Bloomington.

This is in no way to suggest that there is no racism in Bloomington. There is, just as there is in every other city, and the school in question has reportedly had to deal with other incidents of racism recently. But, based on the comments of the students involved, it is possible to conclude that they really are that ignorant.

The three young men say they are “just good old boys” and fans of the “Dukes of Hazzard,” and they were simply asserting their individuality.

One is inclined to take them at their word, although one might question the judgement of anyone who adopts 1970s pop culture icons as his role model.

The only conceivable reason to drive around Bloomington in monster trucks sporting confederate flags would be to make a point, however misguided.

The boys say that displaying the flag was a show of rebellion, not racism.

One of the students was quoted as saying that “The Confederate army was in rebellion to the US army who were about money and power.”

Yeah, that makes sense. White boys from the suburbs rebelling against wealth and power.

They went on to say, “We never took it as racial or anything like that.”

These comments indicate an overwhelming ignorance of historical facts.

Bloomington was never a part of the Confederate States of America, so the boys could not possibly be expressing a sentimental wish to return to “the grand old days of the south.” They may live in the south metro, but that is definitely not part of the south represented by the Confederate flag.

Apparently, the curriculum in the Bloomington School District offers such a limited view of the Civil War that these poor lads don’t even realize that they (or, rather, their forefathers) were Yankees.

The Civil War, and other key points in history might be good things for the school to touch on now and then. It might help prevent these little misunderstandings.

This apparent lack of awareness of history is troubling on many levels. Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, and this is equally true for those who are just too clueless to understand history.

If we are oblivious to racism, or pretend that it doesn’t exist, we are effectively giving it more power and allowing it to quietly flourish.

If the students in question had even a minimal knowledge of US history, or if they had paid any attention to the national news in recent years, it would not come as such a shock to them that the Confederate flag might cause offense to others.

The Civil War was about much more than slavery, but slavery was undeniably a big part of it.

The confederate flag symbolizes different things to different people, but the fact that students can graduate from high school without realizing that some of the things it represents are slavery, racism, and the Jim Crow laws, is almost more frightening than if they displayed it because they support these things.

Even if we put the Civil War aside for a moment, we must acknowledge that the Confederate flag has been adopted by many dubious groups over the years, including white supremacists, such as the Ku Klux Klan; organizations that practice their own twisted brand of “southern hospitality.” If one does not wish to be branded a racist, it may be best to avoid the flag as a symbol of one’s rebellion.

The Confederate flag seems an odd choice anyway. The youths seem to think their actions were no big deal. We must remember, however that the Civil War wasn’t a joke to those who were forced into slavery at the hands of their fellow men. It was not a joke to the more than 600,000 Americans who died in the conflict (including the 1st Regiment of the Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, which served valiantly and suffered a casualty rate of more than 80 percent at Gettysburg). It wasn’t a joke to the millions of Americans who were subject to segregation and discrimination for a century after the war ended.

The three Bloomington students may not have been guilty of racism, but they were certainly guilty of ignorance and thoughtlessness.

With all that said, we cannot entirely let the school off the hook in this matter. The school policy that resulted in the suspension of the Bloomington rednecks also raises some concern.

Evidently, the student code of conduct prohibits “behavior that may provoke or offend other students.”

That is a fairly broad statement.

In this era of extreme sensitivity and political correctness, it is difficult to imagine how one could get through the day without doing or saying something that might possibly offend somebody.

Imposing an overly-broad policy like this is to teeter at the brink of a very slippery slope. Perhaps the school would do better to focus on teaching students why certain expressions, symbols, or actions may be deemed offensive, rather than trying to enforce a vague policy that could be used to suppress all sorts of free speech, including that which is legitimate. This may be an even greater risk than that of offending someone.