The fatal shootings of nine individuals in a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina last week has reignited the long-simmering debate over the Confederate flag and its meaning. The shooter, 21-year old Dylann Roof, is an apparent racist whose online postings included a 2,500-word manifesto declaring the inferiority of blacks and Jews, along with numerous photos of himself with the Confederate flag.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, a major debate has begun over whether that flag should continue to fly on the grounds of South Carolina’s state capitol. While legislators in the Palmetto State debate how to handle the burgeoning controversy, there are also questions to be addressed by NASCAR and other professional sports.
Hundreds of Confederate flags fly each weekend over RVs and motor homes in the infield of NASCAR tracks. The same can be said for college and professional football games, where fans fly Confederate flags as they tailgate and prepare for the day’s gridiron contest. The message sent by those flags is decidedly mixed, depending on one’s heritage and the color of their skin.
For many, displaying the rebel colors amounts to nothing more than a statement of southern pride and heritage. To others, however, particularly those of color, the flag is an endorsement of a time when minorities were considered property to be bought and sold, rather than people. It is a searing reminder of the horrors of slavery, when rape, physical abuse and murder were regular and legal facts of life.
The vast majority of NASCAR fans who fly the Confederate flag on race day harbor no ill will whatsoever toward people of color. To them, the only color that matters is the color of your race team jacket, rather than the color of your skin.
To African-American fans, however, the Confederate colors are a red flag – both literally and figuratively – that declares “you are not welcome here.” Its continued presence at racing events contributes to stereotypes that have hobbled our sport for decades, reinforcing the erroneous perception of NASCAR fans as intolerant, uncivilized and unwelcoming to people of color. Justified or not, that perception is reality for large numbers of potential fans and friends of the sport.
Think of it this way.
If you’re walking down the sidewalk and there’s a snarling dog ahead, you cross the street. It doesn’t matter if the dog is really going to bite you, it matters whether you think the dog is going to bite you. The perception alone is enough to make you cross that street and avoid potential conflict.
Similarly, it doesn’t matter whether the flying of a Confederate flag is meant to celebrate, or to intimidate. To people of color, it is a snarling dog; a threat imposing enough to send them across the street, just in case.
In this day and age – not to mention in this difficulty economy – we cannot afford to alienate anyone, any longer. The current controversy in South Carolina offers an opportunity to examine these longstanding issues of race, and to determine once and for all whether the flying of a flag is worth the alienation of a potentially massive fan base.
If NASCAR ever hopes to attract minority fans in significant numbers, we must remove the snarling dog from our front porch.