Anti-Flag Day

I was astonished that Walmart decided to stop selling Confederate flag-themed merchandise. Astonished like I was when Richard Nixon, Mr. Anti-Communism, went to China, deciding that his and others’ decades’ long campaign to demonize countries with communist governments was a strategy going nowhere and, besides, it was hurting the balance of trade big time. Even though there was an economic motive, the doing of it, seeing this rabid anti-Communist strolling the Great Wall and smiling at Chinese leaders was worth getting up in the middle of the night to watch it on live TV. (It was in 1972 for all you history buffs out there.)

That’s what it takes. The retail king of the earth, born in the deepest South, just deciding to stop selling Confederate goods. Done. It didn’t take them weeks or months of pondering, they just pulled the plug. And then Amazon and Sears and then big flag manufacturers followed suit. Who would have cast Walmart as a moral leader?

In this case, that’s exactly what Walmart is. The company immediately marginalized the Confederate flag and people who think it’s an appropriate symbol to use on their homes, their cars, their clothing. Walmart, of all places, is redefining what is appropriate in our great American culture. I’m sure they’ll make money on it somehow but I don’t care.

So all of a sudden what was always impossible – changing the culture of racism in the U.S. – becomes somewhat less impossible than we thought. Mitt Romney, another unexpected hero, just flat out says the Confederate flag should come down. Unsuccessful and more than a little weird as a presidential candidate, he came off as presidential, just for once saying what he believed without his typical parsing and fine combing. And the President, another hero in my book for saying the N-word out loud and in public and just putting it out there. Stop the masquerade people, he was saying, this is the deal. Listen to the deal. I loved him for that.

Yes, I know it’s just a flag.

And I know more than you might think about racism and the history of slavery in the United States.

So, no, I don’t think we’re in the clear now. The flag is just a symbol, that’s true. But its effect has been to normalize racism everywhere the flag was displayed. That it represented some kind of noble history is a joke. It has been lying posturing to say it really stood for the much-admired General Robert E. Lee and all the other courageous men who vote in the Civil War to protect, don’t you know, state’s rights because, of course, that’s a principle warranting an enormous murderous war rather than a compromise fashioned in rooms with tall windows that look out on to green lawns and rose gardens. The justifications for the Confederate flag go in my personal category of Biggest Crocks Ever Perpetuated.

Right. The Civil War was about slavery. And so is the flag. Everybody knows that. A good old boy riding around town in his Ford pick-up with a Confederate flag decal on the back window was just saying his thing – ‘I’ll always be better than you.’ So now, it gets harder for Joe-Bob to get his Confederate decal. No big deal. But after a while, people who have the decals are the hold-outs, the true-blues, the way far ends of the bell curve. Good. We want that. We want them to be freaks.

The message here is that we need to love the unexpected messenger. We need to love poor ill-fated Richard Nixon for going to China and we need to love Walmart for stuffing all its Confederate flags back into the boxes they were shipped in (probably from China) and tossing them out the door. We need to love Mitt Romney and President Obama for saying what’s true. And we need to always make it safe for those who know the right thing but hide it to stand up in public and be proud. What’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong. Bless the folks who go against type to say what’s true.

We owe them.



Walmart Guard: Racist or Responsible

Social media quickly lined up behind the man who says he was accused of kidnapping his own children by a police officer summoned by a Walmart security guard in Virginia.

White dad, mixed race children didn’t add up right to the security guard. They “didn’t fit,” the guard said, didn’t “match up.” So, being a guy on the lookout for the unusual, the suspicious, and, of course, the illegal, and probably itching for some excitement after a day of gathering up shopping carts and inspecting old ladies’ sales receipts, the security guard got excited by the prospect of spotting a kidnapper in action.

A Jaycee Dugard moment, for sure. Maybe he thought for a minute, second guessed himself. Maybe he thought it would look racist to go after this man and children; after all, what if they were a family? Maybe he didn’t think any of that and his sixth sense, however faulty and misshapen by too much SVU and southern bigotry, lit him up like a little law enforcement fuse. And he went off.

We don’t know. We have no way of knowing.

Me? I tend to give people who do that sort of thing the benefit of the doubt. It didn’t look right to him so he called the cops. Maybe it was wrong. It turned out to be wrong and people are certainly very annoyed. But in my book, it’s an honest mistake.

Why? Because we’re all so used to kids looking like their parents.

Many years ago, I sat in the shallow water of the Atlantic Ocean at a small park at the south end of the Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys. Next to me, no more than 3 feet away, my two Nicaraguan sons, very dark from days in the sun, played in the water with their inflatable dinosaur. On the beach, there was a small group of Cuban women, pointing at my boys and talking to each other, each one getting more worried looking than the other.

“Where is their mother?”

I inched closer to my kids, hoping to give off a mother vibe. My red hair and sunburn certainly no match for their black hair and brown skin.

“Where is their mother?”

I picked one up and took the other by the hand, figuring if I did that and the kids didn’t scream, the beach women would get it that I was their mother, however incongruous that would seem to them.

They did. They wandered back to their picnic tables, every now and then giving us sideways glances. They were convinced but only barely.

For a while, I was insulted by this. “I am their mother!” I wanted to say. But I realized quickly that they would have no way of knowing this. None at all. Most importantly, they were acting out of concern and out of their own experience, experience which did not include a lot of Anglo women with Latino children.

It’s a mistake to make the Walmart guard a villain. The real villain is the rarity that interracial families still are; the unusual sight of transracial adoption; the still out of the norm it is to have children and parents who don’t match in any number of ways.

We’re going to get over this and get ourselves as a country to a broader and better definition of family, of who ‘matches’. It just hasn’t happened yet.