Editorial: Carroll County Public Schools should ban Confederate flag symbols

Carroll County Public Schools is exploring the possibility of banning Confederate battle flag imagery from being worn or displayed by students, a decision that will be fiercely debated. While it will no doubt be the next in a line of unpopular decisions by the school system, there is no question this symbolism should be banned in our public schools.

While the flag has never been explicitly banned in the school system’s dress code, CCPS updated the code in summer 2015, shortly after Dylann Roof, who had posed with Confederate imagery on his website promoting white supremacy, shot and killed nine African-Americans in a historic black church in South Carolina. The shooting set off a wave of public scrutiny over the flag, which critics said Roof used as a symbol of hate and intolerance.

The CCPS dress code, which had already banned clothing that conveyed “messages or symbols that are generally accepted to promote hate, racial slurs, or sexual harassment” added “or intolerance.” Officials at the time said it was not specifically aimed at the Confederate flag.

The history of what we call the Confederate flag — technically not the Confederate national flag but the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia — is a complicated one.

Many of those who wear or display it will say they don’t do so to promote hate or intolerance, rather to proudly display their own Southern heritage or to honor relatives who fought for the Confederacy.

One argument to ban the flag is that to support that heritage is to inherently support slavery and racism. We don’t necessarily believe that one begets the other, but anyone who cannot admit that slavery was at least a part of the reason the South seceded from the Union, if not the root cause, has some serious blinders on. That, however, in and of itself, is not enough to ban the symbolism.

Over the years, the “Stars and Bars” has been adopted by many with ill will toward blacks and those who supported white supremacy. “In the 1940s,” Civil War historian and author James McPherson said in a 2015 interview with Salon, “that Confederate flag came to represent white supremacy as a form of defense against the beginnings of the civil rights movement. It became the symbol of the Dixiecrat Party in 1948 — which, as you know, seceded from the Democratic Party because of the civil rights plank that Hubert Humphrey got inserted in the Democratic Party’s platform in 1948. I think ever since then it's become a symbol of white supremacy.”

It’s difficult to divorce the two. Today, most Americans would instantly identify the swastika as a symbol of hate. But it wasn’t always that way either. From the Sanskrit word “svastika,” which means “conducive to well-being,” it was used as a good luck symbol in many cultures for years before it was co-opted by the Nazi Party in Germany.

We wouldn’t expect schools to be supportive of those wearing or displaying Nazi symbolism. Like it or not, in the eyes of many Americans, the Confederate flag imagery is on par with the Nazi swastika as a symbol of hatred toward others.

In the end, it boils down to this: Does Confederate flag imagery “substantially and materially disrupt the school environment”? Those are the words from a federal appeals court decision that allowed a Tennessee school district to ban Confederate flag apparel in 2008. The Supreme Court dismissed the case without comment in 2009.

The answer to that question in Carroll County, based on testimony from students during Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting, is unequivocally, “yes.”

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