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GAIL WOODS were taught the reality of a leisure class built on the sweat and blood of slaves. Confederacy of Dunces? I certainly am testimony to that deficiency; didn’t realize the import of such symbols when I was a teenager. Later, during my undergraduate days at the 97-percent-white University of Texas, I strolled past the statues of Confederate “heroes” that litter the malls there, oblivious to who they were. But some of the black students I advised during summer orientation my senior year noticed them immediately, and told me how they alarmed them. Thus belatedly enlightened, I and others were later able to persuade the school to establish competing positive symbols by renaming it Little Campus, known as “the front door of the university,” after Heman Sweatt, the black student who opened UT’s doors to students of all colors via a landmark lawsuit in the late 1940s, and to create an annual civil rights symposium in his name. UT officials rebuffed our calls to remove the statues. I learned last month that one of my high school friends had a similar epiphanal experience when a black fellow -law ‘student mentioned that the rebel banner on his dorm wall was offensive. “I’d never thought of that,” he replied, and took down the flag on the spot \(only to be criticized by his racist roommate At UT, as at Lee, opponents of removing the racist symbols accused advocates of trying to rewrite history. Nonsense. It was never told properly the first time. It’s true that both flag and rebellion represented many things, but especially after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, the principal cause of the Confederacy was the preservation the system of of black slavery, and to blacks and white racists after the war, the flag symbolized white supremacy and violence against blacks. Whatever redeeming virtues the Southern cause possessed can’t outweigh those horrors. While difficult questions of applying modern standards to historical events do arise, no one insists that Lee students can’t be proud of the positive aspects of their Southern heritage, that they can’t fly the rebel flag from their front porches, or wear it on a t-shirt. No one claims that most of those who died in the misbegotten cause weren’t good and brave men \(women thy of honor, men who believed in their cause. No one is asking that Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee be stricken from the history books, only that the true horrors of slavery be included as well. What we oppose is the explicit raising of these people and their symbols to positions of honor on public school campuses; public institutions can acknowledge, but should not endorse, symbols or personsthat represent principles that are morally repugnant to members of the public. Certainly not when society has reached a consensus on the immorality of such a principle, as it has with slavery. This goes double for institutions financed by taxpayers of all colors. The Politics of Symbolism If white resistance to removing the flag is hemence, as exhibited in the conflict at Lee High, was harder for me to understand. That renowned Southern courtesy doesn’t extend to neighbors who are offended by the symbols. In fact, however, the flag controversy reveals much about the politics of race in the United States today. If nothing else, the flag fracas .was a reminder of the visceral power of visual symbols. After all, other, less inflammatory Confederate regalia will remain at Lee: “Dixie” will still be played at least 100 times a game ad nauseam, the drill team will still be called the Rebel Rousers \(and wags will still dub name will still grace the building. But flags are different. The idolatry displayed over the Old Gory at so many Persian Gulf War festivities last spring proves that. There’s another, more disquieting revelation to be gleaned from the Lee flag controversy. I think it’s a mistake to dismiss all the defenders of the flag as racist, redneck yahoos, though many unquestionably are. Many others, I believe, see the battle over the flag as emblematic of another, and current, battle: over affirmative action and other race-conscious issues. It’s become clear that, over the past 15 years or so, white resentment of minorities has been growing, as a result of a \(misothers have been given unfair preferences over whites. The whites who subscribe, perhaps subconsciously, to this world view believe that the tattle for civil rights was “won” a generation ago and that everyone should now compete equally. Talk to defenders of the banner, and the discussion will shortly turn to the unfair advantages they supposedly receiving in various areas. This belief is another testament to the inadequacy and inequality of American education, for it’s clear that the moral, practical and political bases for affirmative action still obtain under present circumstances, as everything from the beatings in Howard Beach to recent surveys that reveal pervasive discrimination in hiring and home sales confirm. It’s no accident that such warped views of reality exist among whites, because those views have been deliberately and cynically reinforced by conservative political leaders over the past quarter-century. Instead of national leaders exhorting us to act morally \(as Lyndon Johnson and, to a lesser extent, John Reagan., Jesse Helms, and George Bush, who either explicitly use or tacitly approve and take advantage of racist political rhetoric. Incendiary ymbols such as flags can act as sparks to touch off such already smoldering resentments and redound to the political benefit of the symbol manipulators. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 21