I have been teaching social psychology at North Carolina State University since 1988. And since 2006, I have been teaching a course I created called “Interpersonal Relationships and Race.” Over the years, students have come to trust my analyses of interpersonal and intergroup dynamics enough to rely on me to answer their questions. With my online presence I get questions from current and former students.
Recently, via Facebook, I received this question: Dr. Nacoste: I was wondering, what was your reaction to the confederate flag being taken down in South Carolina? Do you think that this is the start of better racial equality and is a step forward towards neo-diversity?
I answered that question this way:
When it comes to the Confederate Battle Flag being taken down in SC, Americans should celebrate. But we must all understand what to celebrate.
To repeat myself, racial prejudice is not racial bigotry is not racism. Prejudice is an individual’s negative feelings toward a whole group of people, in this case African Americans. Bigotry is when that prejudice is expressed in that individual’s observable behavior; use of stereotypes in conversation, use of racial slurs, avoidance of or refusal to interact with members of the group, and at its most extreme, killing black people because they are black.
For an individual to display a confederate battle flag is not necessarily a sign of that person’s racial prejudice (and thus bigotry). But to have the government of SC display the Confederate Flag showed the racism of the state. Remember, that flag was the battle flag of the Southern state governments who wanted the enslavement of African Americans to continue. Legalized slavery was the most extreme form of racism; institutional enforcement of racial prejudice and bigotry. In the more modern history of South Carolina’s government, fifty years ago, through legislation passed by that government, the Confederate Flag was raised at the state capitol to express symbolic disagreement with, and actual resistance to the Supreme Court desegregation order, and the progress of the Civil Rights Movement. That was racism; government bigotry.
Although that history of government bigotry was reason enough to take it down, understand too that the display of that flag was not just offensive to black people. The display was also offensive to America. To mourn the nine black people murdered in Charleston, the flag of our United States was flown at half-staff. At the same time, flying at the state house of SC, the Confederate Battle Flag was not flown at half-staff because it would have taken a SC legislative act for that to happen. That means for the SC state government the Confederate Battle Flag had more official stature that the flag of the United States of America.
Look, historically some individual Americans have felt, and some continue to feel, racial prejudice toward black people. Today, in their homes and in their social interactions, some of those who do harbor negative feelings (prejudice) toward African Americans as a group engage in some “safe” forms of bigotry (use of stereotypes and racial slurs). But it was unacceptable all along to have a state government display a symbol of racial prejudice and bigotry. The display of that Confederate Battle Flag showed that the state government of SC was engaged in racism by supporting the racial prejudice and bigotry of the historic view of black people as less than human; no more than cattle.
Taking that flag down from an honored position on state government grounds was important because a symbol of racial prejudice and bigotry was removed as a display of government support. Now when any citizen looks at the symbols of the SC government, there is nothing to suggest that one racial group is more important than another in that state. As the sitting Governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley said: “In South Carolina, we honor tradition, we honor history, we honor heritage, but there’s a place for that flag, and that flag needs to be in a museum… But the State House, that’s an area that belongs to everyone. And no one should drive by the State House and feel pain. No one should drive by the State House and feel like they don’t belong.”
Taking down the Confederate Battle Flag from the grounds of the SC State government was about recognizing that SC is not a white state. SC is a state of this union with black citizens. And same as all of the states in our United States of America, SC is a state in which people of many different groups are citizens and interact with each other and the government. In South Carolina, you see, there are citizens from many different racial, ethnic, bodily-conditioned, gendered, religious, mentally conditioned groups. So yes, taking down the flag was a move to show respect for that neo-diversity of the SC citizenry. That is to be celebrated. Now, the SC government and the federal government of our nation must continue to take concrete steps to ensure that our neo-diverse citizens are all shown the respect of equal rights under the law.