Since a mass murderer used a flag as an emblem of white supremacy last week, people have been talking about the flag. It was the Confederate flag, specifically the 20th century version of the battle flag, and in the discussion historians have highlighted this flag’s origins and design. The use of white as the unifying background color was intended by the original designers as a symbol of white supremacy, and this aspect of the design was key to its eventual political acceptance in the Confederacy. But wait: if a flag was originally designed as a symbol of the white supremacist movement and is most prominently used in that way today, wouldn’t that mean it would violate policies against racist merchandise in place at many retailers?
I wonder too if retailers happened to see comedian John Oliver’s show on Sunday. Oliver not only mocked the political dysfunction in South Carolina that had the Confederate battle flag flying at full staff in the wake of the mass deaths a few blocks away and suggested that the state take the flag down, “put it in a box, label it ‘bad flag,’ and put it somewhere no one can see it.” He also noted that “The Confederate flag is one of those symbols that should really only be seen on T-shirts, belt buckles, and bumper stickers to help the rest of us identify the worst people in the world.”
Oliver’s statements, once you get past the comedic exaggeration, reflect the views of most Americans, who give the Confederate flag an approval rating slightly lower than that of the Republican party. Still, the statements might have been shocking for some to hear. There is a political taboo surrounding the Confederate flag in the South and little reason for anyone anywhere else who is not a white supremacist to think about it. For it to suddenly become an active political issue must be a surprise to more people than just me. Somehow I imagine that a Walmart executive saw the John Oliver segment and responded with, “Really? Are our customers ‘the worst people in the world’?” Then, in a Monday meeting, the question was, “Is this bad for our image? It is??” By Tuesday, it was a parade of retailers pulling Confederate flag merchandise from their shelves and catalogs. The sudden prominence of the Confederate flag made it impossible for retailers to let it slip by quietly or grant it a special exception.
Pulling the Confederate flag from stores has helped make the flag a national issue. It will be a slower process to remove it from its places of public prominence, but yesterday the South Carolina legislature started working through the byzantine process of reconsidering its use of the Confederate flag and five other states ordered the removal of the Confederate flag from license plates. A symbol of white supremacy that has been broadly used across the South for 70 years will not go away in a day, but the business world moves faster, and a day was all it took for the flag to disappear from more than a dozen retail sites.