Opinion: Oregon has a Confederate flag issue
Updated: Oct 25, 2021
The Confederate flag has morphed and transformed throughout American history. I should know - I grew up with it. Having spent nearly a decade living in the Deep South, a member of a visibly marginalized community, the Confederate flag became a cultural fixture in a landscape of fraught political polarization and growing racial tensions across the country.
There are few I know today who are capable of grasping the true, moral weight of such a flag. A battle flag, a truce flag, a flag for the navy, a flag for the states: a flag that symbolizes an institution of anti-Black chattel slavery which will forever define the culture and politics of the Deep American South, a legacy inescapable and a debt unpaid. My neighbors in Jacksonville, Florida flew the Confederate flag from their Jeeps and cumbersome trucks, staking out their white hunting grounds in a deeply suburban, seemingly polite community. Students at Fleming Island High School wore the Confederate flag on their belt buckles and boasted to have kept the flag itself in their bathrooms, [to classmates who were 75% white]. [Two Black girls were listed for sale on Craigslist] by a white student as “field slaves”; in the community across the river from us, the predominantly Black student body [attended- and still attends- Robert E. Lee High School].
Hell, the whole city is named after Andrew Jackson (I don’t think I need to explain that one).
Needless to say, I know the Confederate flag when I see one.
And Oregon has a Confederate flag problem. Salem has a Confederate flag problem - and no one has fixed it. Yet.
The flag itself though, represents a far deeper, cultural issue and this time, the veneer of neoliberalism so widely touted by the white voters in the Pacific Northwest won’t solve anything. It’s going to make it worse. There’s no use denying the Confederate flag’s massive presence in the state of Oregon, despite being a decidedly Unionist state since 1861; it’s a paradoxical clash of historical fact and cultural phenomenon, one that even baffles Southerners. “I will say that when I did come up here and saw the Confederate flag, I thought it was very odd,” commented fellow Southerner Matthew Mahoney, a Willamette student originally from Dallas, Texas. “I don’t understand that. The Texans and Southerners could at least say that it's a heritage thing. Oregon can’t say that, Oregon wasn’t a part of the Confederacy, it was always part of the Union.” But as Mahoney was keen to point out, it has little to do with American heritage - and everything to do with the growing presence of white nationalism on the West Coast.
Oregon and Florida share intimately similar histories of racism. While [the former was banning Black people from any form of residency], Florida openly embraced the group as a form of unpaid mass labor. Both states attempted to solve the “Black issue” in America through the Ku Klux Klan. It’s no surprise then, that white “patriots” identify so closely with the Confederate battle flag, a deliberate choice of racist iconography. As demonstrated by its weaponization in the South- intimidating Black students, delineating the domain of whites -it’s clear that the same is happening here in the Pacific Northwest. This isn’t a phenomenon isolated to the South: Willamette students from the Portland area will likely be familiar with the intense fight to [change the name of Woodrow Wilson High School] (eponymous for [the same president] who avidly defended the “Lost Cause” mythos), spearheaded by alumni of color who would later attend this very university. Whereas states like Florida have, overtime, normalized the dichotomy of white-Black segregation and used historical symbols of white nationalism to repress political organization among the marginalized communities, the inherent violence of the flag is considered laughable in Oregon- all while its popularity [continues to grow across the Willamette Valley]. The rallies across the street like the ones [on Labor Day] or [March 28] are seen by many whites in this state as an anomaly, when it was only decades ago that [one in twenty Oregonians was a card-carrying member of the K.K.K.], the most of any state west of the Mississippi River. “You know, the Confederate flag is increasingly being used as a symbol of white supremacy and hate, and there’s just no excuse for it anymore,” Mahoney said.
Oregon can’t even begin the work of dismantling the systematic oppression at play from the justice system to the housing industry without first taking into account its own house, and that includes the Confederate flag it flies on the front porch. “You and I, we are not so different,” I say to you, as a Floridian.
Protesting is not enough. Abolishing the police is not enough. The only way to solve the Confederate flag issue is by taking it down from the peg on the front porch: Oregonians have to acknowledge that racism is inherently violent, never passive. It’s not an anomaly; it’s systemic. Then, and only then, will Oregonians be any different than the Deep South.