The new Republican position on the Confederate battle flag may be more of a change than most people – and perhaps even the Republicans themselves – realize.
Efforts to remove Confederate symbols seem to be gathering steam, moving beyond South Carolina. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky (who, to his credit, has been reaching out beyond regular Republican voters with his presidential campaign) may have provided the best summing up of the new position: “I think the flag is inescapably a symbol of human bondage and slavery,” he said. “I think that that symbolism needs to end.”
What’s important here is that Republicans aren’t just flipping on the Confederate flag. They may be revising their understanding of racism. Over and over, many Republicans have argued that only explicit acts – someone claiming to be a racist or to hate blacks – count as real racism. This has come up in accusations that Tea Party events included racist symbols, or in the reactions to various high-profile confrontations between the police and black citizens. Or, for that matter, in questions about whether the Voting Rights Act or affirmative action policies are needed to address real bigotry and discrimination.
But now, the party’s leaders are admitting there’s more to bigotry than explicit racism. Not only that, they’re refusing to accept assurances that those wielding the symbols have good intentions. That’s a big step – especially since some of the people who defend the display of the flag may be doing so out of ignorance, not malice. But racist effects can be real and important even if the people involved aren’t motivated by racism. Accept that, and you are on the way to recognizing and dealing with institutional bigotry.
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If symbolic racism is real and matters – which is what Republicans are saying now about the Confederate flag – then racism is a much more serious issue than many Republicans have admitted.
We have yet to see whether this newfound discovery of the harm caused by merely symbolic racism will extend beyond the debate over the Confederate flag, or even beyond this week. And of course, none of this dictates any specific policy response. Still, if this week’s emerging consensus among Republicans holds, it would be a big deal.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist covering U.S. politics.