BY DR. LYNN WEBER
We in South Carolina unlike the rest of the nation know the sad truth about the Confederate flag. On July 1, 2000, that flag was raised, not lowered.
It was moved from its barely visible spot atop the capitol dome to a lit pole at the busiest intersection on the capitol grounds in the middle of town. Those of us involved in the fight to bring it down from the dome know what happened: we were trumped.
Only four of 26 black representatives voted for the supposed "compromise." In the final analysis, we were told in no uncertain terms by the powerful forces in the state that this flag will still fly, and that the balance of power will not shift in South Carolina no matter what the forces of change from outside or inside the state might be.
This struggle was not about a flag. People who thought so missed the point. This was a struggle to remove a symbol representing the historically embedded power hierarchies in the state: white, patriarchal, heterosexual and capitalist. And it would have taken a coalition capable of changing that historical power structure to bring down that symbol, that flag.
This struggle was about so much more than a flag and it clearly demonstrated perhaps the central principle under-girding the hierarchies of race, class, gender and sexuality they are intersecting systems of power relationships.
As Lani Guinier recently said, power has three faces:
This struggle was not about a symbol divorced from other material realities of people's lives; it was about who makes the rules that we are expected to live by. Throughout the debate, for example, historians (professionally trained and amateur) kept trying to clarify the history of this particular piece of cloth, this flag, noting that it:
Those who sought to clarify the historical record hoped that some flag supporters would change their position when they knew what this symbol represented. But the leaders of the movement to continue to fly the flag responded that it is about "heritage," not racism.
What heritage? The heritage of ruling.
And what was at stake was far more than moving a piece of cloth. It was about who wins the game and continues to make the rules in a state where race, gender and class inequality are among the highest in the nation.
Many people across the state feminists, environmentalists, labor unions, religious groups, students coalesced, marched, campaigned and lobbied to bring down the flag. If these forces had won, those coalitions would be emboldened in our struggles to make change on issues that matter to the majority of the citizens of the state. But we lost.
And we know we lost in part because the balance of power did not shift. And to the victor went the spoils-the power to publicly interpret who won the game, to create the spin on the game itself.
Now the mainstream media has told the story the flag came down, a compromise was reached and, by implication, we mitigated the evil forces of racism in the state. To the contrary, the power did not shift. And the pressures to change have receded. The NAACP and others will continue to boycott, but too many within the sate and without will not understand why.
Many feminist and race scholars write about racism and sexism as ideologies as ideas, or symbols, performed like roles in a play-and, by implication, just as easily changed as costumes or lines. They miss the connection between power and ideology between setting the rules, winning the game, and interpreting the outcome. To miss this connection is to miss the point.
Dr. Lynn Weber is director of Women's Studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. This column first appeared in the department's fall newsletter, and is reprinted with permission.