It’s hard to find a political issue as simultaneously silly and salient as flag-burning. And yet, it is suddenly before us in the Georgia governor’s race between Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams.
With only days to go until the midterm elections, of course it’s the time for candidates who fear they can’t win fair and square to pull out all the dirty tricks. And few have been dirtier than Kemp, who is also Georgia’s Secretary of State and has been putting tens of thousands of voters’ registrations in the state on hold, most of them African-American, under the state’s “exact match” law.
And now, suddenly, on Monday – the “eve of her first debate Tuesday with her Republican opponent,” said the New York Times – a video surfaced on social media; it is aimed squarely and transparently at riling up a racist base. It shows Stacey Abrams, at a burning of the state flag in 1992.
Flag burning is, of course, a protected form of expression, but conservatives – the same people who are currently positioning themselves as free speech warriors – have repeatedly tried to outlaw it. The only reason is that it offends their sensibilities – including those of our “politically incorrect” President. (Attempts to outlaw flag-burning are fundamentally anti-free-speech, but still, symbols matter, and for many Americans, the American flag is a sign of pride in our country.)
But Abrams didn’t participate in a burning of the American flag. She didn’t even burn the current State of Georgia flag. More than a quarter-century ago, as a college student, Abrams took part in the expressive burning of the former state flag – which proudly included the Confederate battle flag emblem.
That state flag wasn’t some storied part of Georgia’s history; it was adopted in 1956, after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that public schools had to racially integrate. The confederate symbol was placed on the Georgia state flag in direct response to racial integration. It was placed there to make clear that the powers that be in Georgia opposed racial equality. It was nothing other than a big, deliberate, and clear middle finger to African-Americans.
That is what Stacey Abrams burned – not a symbol of Georgia itself or of the state’s history, but a symbol that was affixed to the flag to send a message that whites are superior to blacks.
Defenders of the Confederate flag and Confederate monuments can’t have it both ways. They like to say, as Kemp does, that liberals are trying to erase history; they often say that the flag is about “heritage not hate.” But if the goal is truly to understand history, then we must all look directly at the fact that the history of Georgia’s flag is one in which the white legislature intentionally incorporated a Confederate symbol to demonstrate its hatred of racial integration. Is that a flag that deserved respect?
Georgia didn’t think so – the state changed its state flag in 2001, and removed the Confederate battle flag entirely in 2003. Other Republicans, including Nikki Haley, have also criticized the Confederate flag – Haley said that it should never have been on South Carolina statehouse grounds.
Flag-burning is a jarring act because it is a symbolic desecration. But whether one finds that desecration offensive or not depends on what the flag symbolizes.
For many Americans, our national flag symbolizes the best of our country: Freedom, democracy, and all the potential America offers its people. For others, burning the American flag is an expressive repudiation of American war-mongering, hegemony, and unearned exceptionalism. Fair-minded people can hold differing views on what our national flag means, and by extension, the relative offensiveness of burning it.
There isn’t the same debate around the now-defunct Georgia flag that Abrams, as a young college student, participated in burning as part of a peaceful protest. The foul history and the ugly motivations behind the flag are the same reasons the state eventually adopted a new design.
So why are we discussing this now? Kemp supporters are banking on the hope that it will hurt Abrams’s campaign. There are indeed white voters who cast their ballots on identity politics alone, in favor of candidates they see as upholding their unearned racial supremacy and against those candidates they see as pushing for a more equal playing field.
This story is nothing other than a right-wing attempt to inflame the kind of voters who will be offended by a black woman protesting a symbol of racial hatred. The GOP should be ashamed that they receive such support, not salivating for it.
If Abrams wins, she will be the first African-American female governor in the country – an especially remarkable milestone in a state with a particularly brutal racist past. Abrams has spent her life as an advocate and a dedicated public servant, trying to make sure that the many people long erased from Georgia’s history and disenfranchised from its institutions could also participate in public life and live free of discrimination.
This election shows how much women like Abrams have changed their communities and their country – and how much still remains stubbornly stuck.
Abrams’s act more than 25 years ago was a statement against racism and segregation. It was a statement in favor of the full participation of all Americans, no matter their skin color. Believing that your country can and must be better is what patriotism looks like, and it’s what the best of Georgia looks like – not segregation, and not the flag created in support of it. Her act wasn’t offensive, but her opponent’s attempts to exploit the racist inclinations of his white base certainly are.
If protesting and destroying an object expressly designed as an expression of racism is, as Kemp has portrayed Abrams, “too extreme for Georgia,” then Georgia needs to take a hard look in the mirror.