Confederate flags in Georgia
30 July, 2015
I have seen a few confederate flags in Tbilisi. Some on used cars that have come from the United States, stickers here and there, even a few the flags for sale in places that sell flags. The symbolism of the flags is important in the United States and much discussed right now and I think has relevance for Georgia even though the two places are so far from each other and have such different histories.

I always wonder what are
the symbols for Georgians that remind them of something Georgia has done wrong in its past?

There is a great deal of racism in the US as everywhere but it is somehow more wired into American society than many other places. There are relatively few people who openly make racist comments but there is still a great deal of institutional racism. Many studies have been done in which jobs are applied for with identical CVs, one with a name that sounds like a European American and one that sounds like an African American. The African American sounding names are called significantly less frequently, just as an example.
All of this is a legacy of slavery. The settlement of what is now the United States was not a well organized process. It started with many people coming to America via indentured servitude, meaning somebody would pay for their ship across the Atlantic if they would work for several years without pay. As big plantations grew and became more common, particularly in the south, the actual enslavement of African Americans began to be recognized by law. It was the most immoral aspect of the emergence of the United States and was the foundation of the economy of the southern states which did not industrialize when the north did. Slavery was ended by a bloody civil war but institutional racism remained.

Georgians are under no obligation to take the Confederate flag seriously as a symbol, it is not your history, it’s mine.

The civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s went a long way to fight for the rights of African American but many whi­tes were against equal rights and equal protection under the law. Those whites used the confederate flag to symbolize their dissatisfaction with equal rights for African Americans. Despite these equal rights, since 1980 America has become less equal and many African Americans remain in poverty, with relative imprisonment rates for example much higher than for whites. Particularly with mobile phones and social media, there are more and more videos of unfair treatment by police causing frustration and sadness. Although the problems are not new they are more evident now.
On 17 June this year, a twenty one year old white supremacist named Dylann Roof walked into a famous African American church in South Carolina sat down for an hour in a prayer group, then pulled out a handgun and killed nine people. Guns are so easy to get in America that group murders like this happen more often than anywhere else, but this was an unusually cold blooded murder. While this was happening the confederate flag flew in front of the state capitol. After much discussion over several days the flag was permanently taken down.
The point of all this is that this flag is a powerful symbol in the United States. There are many parts of the world where the Soviet flag or the Nazi flag doesn’t mean much, or can be looked at ironically or from a distance. But in other places it is packed with meaning, anger, guilt, or sadness. That’s what the confederate flag is like for me, even when I see it in Tbilisi, so far from where it comes from.
As William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Our history lives with us and we pay for not recognizing it. The US has not fully recognized slavery as a fact within our own history and within our own soul as a nation. The inequality we see today between African Americans and other Americans illustrates that, if there is any doubt. As a society we need to take a painful look into it and understand it better and be honest about it. Talk about it more. Pay for it with some honesty and an apology that is real and means something. I don’t mean to say slavery is the only sad wrong thing lurking back in American history. There are plenty of others bad things we have done, some of them quite recent.
Georgians are under no obligation to take the Confederate flag seriously as a symbol, it is not your history, it’s mine. I just wanted you to know how I feel when I see it, even in Georgia. And when I do see it and can see that it clearly doesn’t have the meaning for Georgians that it has for me, I always wonder what are the symbols for Georgians that remind them of something Georgia has done wrong in its past? Maybe it is only big powerful countries that have done bad things in their past, they have certainly done more worse things. But does Georgia need to look deep inside at something it has done but tried to hide or doesn’t want to talk about? Is there some symbol for that? Something it should recognize and atone for in a way the Confederate flag requires that I must?