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Confederate Flap: Stand Firm, Howard Dean

Candidate's allusion to poor Southern whites opens an important issue.

November 06, 2003|Constance L. Rice | Constance L. Rice is a civil rights attorney.

Howard Dean wants to represent angry white Confederate flag-wavers. He even quotes Martin Luther King Jr. in doing so. And in a televised debate Tuesday he refused to say he was sorry for starting this tempest.

Well, Dr. Dean, you may have clumsily launched this issue, but keep at it and keep quoting, because you're right.

No, this is not a missive from a Southern rebel driving a Confederate flag-festooned F-150 half-ton to a Civil War reenactment. It's from the great-granddaughter of slaves -- and slave owners. A civil rights lawyer, no less, who knows full well the toxic pain and pride tangled in all symbols of the slavocracy known as Dixie.

Dean is right for three reasons.

First, he's right politically. Without a vision big enough to embrace Southern white men -- angry or not -- this country cannot be diverted from its current path toward corporation-focused, downwardly mobile plutocracy and turned back toward people-focused, upwardly mobile democracy.

Second, one of Martin Luther King's most profound insights came in his warning that to avoid elimination as the irrelevant unskilled, poor whites and poor blacks had to band together in a "grand alliance" and demand from politicians jobs, justice and opportunity for everyone.

King realized that the grand old bargain this country had always offered to poor whites -- namely, accept your poverty and we will ensure your racial caste superiority over blacks -- must be destroyed before universal opportunity could be realized.

King clearly knew that the very whites he was appealing to clung to both the Confederate flag and empty white supremacy. Yet he still proposed this alliance for the greater prosperity of all: "Together [poor whites and poor blacks] could form a grand alliance. Together, they could merge all people for the good of all."

The third reason is that we need to get beyond fighting over Confederate symbols and get to the critical re-founding of this country for its people.

As a death-penalty lawyer with a Nazi-tattooed Aryan Nation client, I've known a few whites who defend the Confederate flag as the symbol of slavery that it is. Almost all other white Southerners now reject any defense of slavery but some cling passionately to the flag as if it were the only white buoy in a sea of lost identity and vanishing heritage.

Are they in abject denial? Yes. Do I find many Southerners aggressively ignorant about slavery? Yes. Do I find the Confederate flag an obnoxious symbol of slavery? Yes. But I find the Third World poverty of poor American children a more obnoxious symbol of today's slavery.

My point here is move on. This family feud about a symbol is not resolvable at this time. But more important, we don't have to resolve it to get to the more important mission of rescuing this country from the merry band of corporatists and robber barons at its helm right now.

So, Dr. Dean, get the interracial sophistication that's needed to carry out Dr. King's vision of the grand alliance, and get it quickly. As much of a minefield as it presents, talking about the Confederate flag, poverty and race is crucial for our country's future as a multiracial democracy.

Go for it. And you don't need to apologize.

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