Why Having the Right Flag is Important

Our motorcycle ride around the Carolinas and the rest of America’s Bible Belt continues during interesting times.

This week in America there has been a furore over the racist-inspired murder of members of bible class in the South Carolina city of Charleston. Amongst the belongings of the alleged murderer, 21 year old Dylann Roof, were flags of the white supremacist regimes of South Africa and Rhodesia as well as several Confederate flags. The offender was known to exhibit these as a symbol of his pride in the actions of the South to defend its rights to keep slaves. Many photos of roof draped in one or all three flags were recovered; and his website thelastrhodesian.com was full of racist invective – all evidence of his devotion to supremacist values.

Our own experience around the small towns of the South has revealed its contradictions daily. Churches are ubiquitous as is evidence of the struggle the region still is having over what its values are. On the one hand, many towns have streets named after Confederate the civil war heroes who opposed ending slavery, and we’ve seen monuments everywhere lauding the Confederacy but none commemorating the lynchings of that era. On the other hand we’ve been subjected to a public tirade from a disaffected African American expressing loudly his displeasure with the racism of his fellow Americans, and have heard a black preacher in the streets imploring black people passing by never to forget that the whites shipped them in from Africa and to stand up for their rights. To top it all off this week of course the press over here is full of the scandal around the use of the Confederate flag by the State government in North Carolina.

When South Carolina’s State government refused to lower the Confederate flag (it flies it near its State legislature on a war memorial and is compulsory in state legislators’ offices) in respect for the victims of the Charleston racial hate massacre, even Republicans including Mitt Romney have been repulsed. Indeed there is a bill being promoted by Republican Senator Doug Brannon to remove the flag. The rallying effect of this supremacist symbol on the less sophisticated in southern society has become so sickening that even the Right Wing is calling for public education. Despite the efforts of the Martin Luther King era, America is still struggling with racial separatism, especially disgusting in the South’s Bible Belt states.

The South has been resisting this for years – they see the rebel flag as a symbol of “a noble Southern heritage” whereas most Americans outside of the Bible Belt see it very much as a symbol of “slavery and oppression”. As Hilary Clinton said this week:

“Our problem is not all kooks and Klansmen, it’s also the cruel joke that goes unchallenged. It’s the offhand comment about not wanting ‘that kind of person’ in the neighbourhood… Despite our best efforts and our highest hopes, America’s long struggle with race is far from over”.

Because he is black, every time Barrack Obama speaks about his country’s race relations he gets openly abused. It’s become a no-go zone for him. The median wealth of white American’s is $142k, of black Americans is $19k. To hold that 15% of Americans still don’t face deep-rooted, very serious disadvantages just because of their colour, is not tenable. And in today’s New York Times Paul Krugman has picked up the theme by suggesting the absence of a proper welfare state in the US is because of racism – the main beneficiaries would be black and that doesn’t appeal to those whose values are still grounded in America’s slavery past. To support his case he presents a graph that shows the states that haven’t adopted the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), they are the former slave states of the South. Charming.

The dichotomy in the US holds a salutary lesson for New Zealand. We have successfully negotiated an end to the discriminatory practices that typified our colonialist-styled governments up until the mid-1900’s. The post-1975 renaissance of the Treaty of Waitangi and its restoration to its rightful place as the founding document of our society, is something worth celebrating and celebrating seriously. That we have managed, some 175 years after signing of the Treaty, to at last obliterate the amnesia about our own history, and fully acknowledge the wrongs committed, is an enormous achievement and one we should be committed to cementing in place.

What we have to ensure is that this victory over the pakeha supremacy that hitherto described much of our legislation, our education practices and our social service delivery, is permanent. And that requires scrubbing out all symbols and practices of that type of regime. Already New Zealand is light years ahead of Australia in this regard, we are lucky enough to have avoided the white supremacist extremes that South Africa perpetrated, and thankfully the relationship between Maori and Pakeha is miles ahead of that between black and white Americans – African Americans make up the same percentage of that population as Maori do in New Zealand, yet the rate of intermarriage is less than half that in New Zealand.

So we have much to be proud of, especially since the awakening the Maori land marches of 1975 inspired. We have the Maori “radicals” of those days to thank. But we shouldn’t rest on our laurels, we need to press on and ensure the new Aotearoa New Zealand is a foundation for a strong future for both Maori and non-Maori societies, for all ethnic groups who these days constitute our society. It should be obvious from the current troubles in the US that gains such as those achieved during the Martin Luther King era, can be lost if not followed through.

I very much see the change in the flag as part, only part, of this process. I fail to see why a defaced British naval ensign, modified to suit the purpose of the British when unlawfully colonising New Zealand isn’t, just like the Confederate flag in the US, a salute to an unjust imperialist past that we need to agree was inappropriate and we no longer respect.

My take is that those who “like” the current flag simply haven’t thought about what it represents. Wakey, wakey.

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