There's been a lot of debate about whether the Confederate flag is a symbol of racism or one of heritage. But at the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates demonstrates that this debate is a false choice: The flag could very easily be a symbol of both — because America's heritage is, at least in part, systemic racism.
Coates wrote in "Letter to My Son":
In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor — it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. It must be rape so regular as to be industrial. There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no praise anthems, nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructible—that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden. And the fruits were secured through the bashing of children with stovewood, through hot iron peeling skin away like husk from corn.
Coates's narrative shows that America was built on the abuse of black people. Slavery was the basis for much of the country's agricultural economy in its early years — and many Americans were willing to die to protect this institution. Seceding states made no qualms about this: South Carolina explicitly singled out attempts to abolish slavery and grant rights to black Americans as "hostile to the South" and "destructive of its beliefs and safety," and Mississippi declared that its "position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery."
This might not be the heritage that Southerners think they're celebrating through the Confederate flag. But it is the history of America, a country that was founded in large part on slavery and continued its oppression of black people through Jim Crow laws that have left a bitter impact on black communities to this day.
For many black people, much of this abuse continues — through, for instance, racial disparities in police use of force. Coates wrote, in the letter directed to his son, "I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, [a 12]-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body."
Whether and how all of these issues are connected will likely continue to be debated for years to come. But Coates's essay shows the abuse of black people is part of a long history in America — and this is the heritage Southerners celebrate when they raise the Confederate flag at their state capitols or proudly stamp it on their license plates.