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Confederate flag debate truth

The Confederate flag debate dribbles on. South Carolina's only Fortune 500 company is duking it out with the state's most visible flag supporter, Maurice Bessinger, whose barbecue restaurants feature a nauseating display of Confederate flags. Read Sunday's Washington Post if you care for the details; I don't. However, because many at Duke hail from places far away, I would like to offer a few insights unavailable to most outside people South Carolina.

First, the NAACP isn't responsible for the flag debate. It's been going on since the flag went up. The NAACP got involved because the local chapter asked for help.

Second, most South Carolinians of every race want the flag removed. In the face of graver problems such as education, health care and the environment, all which affect black citizens disproportionately, arguing about an already less prominent flag is ineffective.

Third, the NAACP's claim that the flag is more prominent is false. The flag once flew on the dome, below the national and state flags. It was visible from anywhere downtown. Graphic artists airbrushed it from advertisements. Now it flies on a flagpole on the ground. You can see it from only one intersection, from only one street, because it's behind a much taller monument.

Fourth, the NAACP attempted to simultaneously claim both victory and insult. That is, when the flag came down, the organization announced its triumph as well as the continuation of the boycott. Tourism tax revenues are up, and I noticed few Duke students seemed concerned about the boycott when planning their annual bacchanalia in Myrtle Beach.

Surely the NAACP has a more pressing agenda than a squabble with a bunch of dinosaurs who already did what was asked of them by removing the flag from the statehouse dome. Let's prepare more black children to serve in state legislatures and see how quickly that flag disappears.

A larger point has been lost in the ruckus: the difference between racial insensitivity and racism. Neither is acceptable, but the term racism should be reserved for deliberate, systematic discrimination; otherwise, we risk losing our sensitivity to the most serious problems. Flying the flag anywhere is insensitive, but supporters want to keep it because the alternative is admitting to racism. Consider the following exchange: Offended: Stop doing that. It's insensitive. Offender: Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize. I'll stop. Now consider this one: Offended: Stop doing that. It's racist. Offender: No, it's not! And I'm going to keep doing it, just to prove I'm not a racist.

Those who want the flag removed have characterized the issue as racism because they feel the stronger word strengthens their argument. Perhaps, but it weakens their hand. I, too, once called flag supporters ignorant racists, but this overstates the case, as do the terms "Confederate swastika," (used by the Rev. Charles White Jr., NAACP's southeast regional office director) and "terrorism"(used by both sides to describe the other's tactics).

One might argue that continuing to fly the flag despite protest is indeed racism. Even so, the opposing view must be accommodated; otherwise, we are debating the terms of the argument instead of its point. Most flag supporters really do see themselves as supporting their heritage. Instead of calling them racists, allow them the slightly more forgivable route of admitting to insensitivity. Sure, the flag might represent a spunky Southern heritage, but it also represents an atrocity against its own people. Being sensitive is more important than celebrating our heritage in this particular manner.

Unfortunately, in the paradigm in which disagreement with a black person on a racial issue suffices for racism, the NAACP has created a situation in which no side can cave gracefully. While I support the NAACP's goal, I decry its actions. I think the flag eventually will be removed from the statehouse grounds (it belongs further down Gervais Street, in the State Museum), but not because the NAACP yelled, "Racist!" at the top of its lungs for five, 10 or however many years it takes for new blood to take over the state legislature.

Emily Streyer Carlisle is a master?s student in the economics department and the Health Policy Certificate program. Her column appears on alternating Thursdays.


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