COVER/Donna Ladd

Rebel with a Cause

Progessives Write Off Southern Whites at their Peril

No one gets the Confederate flag problem. I grew up in Mississippi surrounded by rebel battle flags, big and small, and I didn't get it then. I live in Mississippi now, and I still don't really know exactly what the flag means.

It's a complicated symbol, with race at its center, and it's included in my state's official emblem. It certainly is an emblem of race violence. It also stands for southern defensiveness and anger at "outsiders" who sweep all folks down here into one big, racist tent. It stands for seething fury over the "Lost Cause," and the economic devastation that came after the Civil War and Reconstruction. It is a symbol of defiance for poor whites who want to feel like they're better than somebody else. And it is a way to get easy votes in a state that hasn't faced its race legacy, as lobbyist Haley Barbour proved last week as he won a narrow victory here, after garnering the latent angry white vote, yes, by wrapping himself in the rebel flag.

I decided to return to my home state after 18 years away the day after Mississippi voted two-to-one to keep the Confederate battle emblem in our state flag. I hate the flag and everything it stands for, and I want to write stories that will help it rot off the pole some day in sheer irrelevance. But I know that it's not as simple as writing off the folks who find some sort of twisted hope or pride in the flag. And it's certainly more than a political football to be passed at will.

On that point, I'm with presidential candidate Gov. Howard Dean: the Democratic Party, or someone other than the far right, ought to be talking to southerners (or non-southerners; been to Idaho or Ohio lately?) who display the battle emblem in their pickups or their SUVs or their dorm rooms. If you understand the simmering racist anger in this country at all, you should know why this is important to do. And you'll also know that we Southerners don't do it nearly enough. Still, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards echoed racist voices of the past when he chastised Dean during a debate: "Let me tell you, the last thing we need in the South is somebody like you coming down and telling us what we need to do."

Gov. Dean did not say that the party should condone the Confederate battle flag; he said they should talk to and appeal to those voters because they have more in common with Democrats than with Republicans who have been playing them for too long. And he is very correct. Most of the same, often young, white men, who replace something that's missing in their lives -- usually hope -- with the rebel flag are being used by the current-day Republican Party ever since Barry Goldwater birthed the "Southern Strategy" in the 1960s.

This strategy really hit its stride back in 1980 when Ronald Reagan kicked off his presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair, just nine miles from where civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were buried by Klansmen back in 1964. Rebel battle flags were everywhere during the fair in 1980, as they were this July as Haley Barbour and other candidates spoke there. Reagan came to Neshoba County to take advantage of the ignorance and fear of my people. He fanned the flames of racism -- making it palatable to a national audience including lots of rich and educated folk from coast to coast. Since then, the rebel battle flag has symbolized a resurgence of race hatred and distrust that can be attributed directly to the New Republican Party.

This wink-wink strategy of using coded (and not-so-coded) racism to appeal to southern white voters is despicable, at least as much as actually riding around Union, Miss., with a Confederate flag in your pick-up truck. Worse to me is that poor whites are being used in such a dramatic, blatant, dishonorable way, and they don't even get anything in return. Not better jobs (thanks, NAFTA). Not better education (thanks, re-segregation and now No Child Left Behind). Not a union to back them up. Certainly not high-paid cushy jobs in Washington. They, in a phrase, are played for idiots.

Now, if you are one of the Democratic candidates for president or, say, a national journalist who can't see beyond the end of your elitist nose, then why should you give a damn about what them good young boys think down here? They don't matter. They're racists, you might say; let 'em go rot in their own ignorant juices. You would be wrong. And naïve.

The truth is, these young men driving around in pick-ups with Confederate battle flags (and stickers and license plate holders and t-shirts and tattoos) are across America, and they are frustrated about the economy, and they are trolling for a scapegoat. They even vote from time to time -- especially if the candidate massages their fears and flashes their symbols.

Back during the 2000 election debacle, I went to Florida for the Village Voice, and looked into racist groups lurking around West Palm Beach. I talked to Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center about why there was a new wave of race hatred sweeping the country. A frustrated white underclass is rapidly growing in America, Potok said, as decent-paying jobs increasingly go to better-educated immigrants, leave the country or are made obsolete by technology. ''We can go on until the cows come home about low unemployment. The starker reality is a guy who was making $60,000 as a welder is now lucky to make $15,000 managing a fast-food restaurant,'' Potok said then, adding that it was naïve to be surprised by the American "red-blue" cultural divide that was highlighted by the 2000 election. ''The fact is, the radical right has plainly described that split for many, many years, and they're not wrong," he added.

Thus, when Howard Dean says that the Democratic Party -- supposedly the "party of the people" these days -- must reach out to disaffected whites, he's right, no matter what John Kerry and Al Sharpton and John Edwards say. Does that mean, like Haley Barbour and friends, that progressives should start waving the Confederate battle flag? Hell, no. But they also shouldn't be using complex symbols for cheap votes.

It means that we need to recognize the actual problems in America, even in the South, where so much electoral power rests. Instead of writing off angry and fearful whites, progressives must take their concerns and problems seriously and talk directly to them as often as possible about exactly what's happening to jobs and security in America. We can't just pretend they're not there. They are there -- here -- and, as we saw vividly in Mississippi gubernatorial election, they vote. We ignore these fellow Americans at our own peril.

Donna Ladd is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the Jackson Free Press (

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