NASCAR is at a crossroads today, debating the role of the Confederate Flag in both its past and its future.
When 21-year old Dylann Roof opened fire on a bible study group recently, gunning down nine black parishioners in their predominately black South Carolina church, he rekindled a fire that has threatened to consume this nation for more than 160 years.
NASCAR has not been spared from the flames. In the days following the attack, the sanctioning body has spoken openly of its desire to distance itself from the Confederate Flag. Yesterday, every NASCAR National Series race track signed-off on a statement requesting that fans no longer fly that flag at their venues. That request will be honored by many and ignored by some, forcing many longtime followers to choose between the Rebel Flag and their lifelong love affair with the sport.
The next few months will be difficult for both NASCAR and its fan base. Some longtime fans – and perhaps some new ones – will choose to walk away, rather than take down their flags. They will be missed, but the message they espouse will most certainly not.
It is time for NASCAR to walk the walk, rather than simply talking the talk. Welcoming minority fans with open arms does not work with a sea of “You Are Unwelcome” flags flying overhead. It’s easy to preach about the need for minority drivers and crewmembers in NASCAR, but without black faces in the grandstand, there will never be an appreciable number of black faces in the race cars.
This weekend, Daytona International Speedway will attempt to catch flies with honey, asking – politely at first – for fans to abstain from flying the Confederate Flag. We’ve all heard the adage, “You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” but make no mistake about it, if this weekend’s request fails to achieve the desired results, NASCAR and its affiliated speedways will use whatever amount of vinegar it takes to get the job done.
Neither NASCAR nor International Speedway Corporation have any intention of unveiling their shining new Daytona International Speedway in February of 2016 with Rebel flags in the background. They’ll do whatever it takes – asking, begging, cajoling, even invoking an outright ban, if necessary – to rid the sport of what has become a hurtful and divisive symbol.
Our sport has come to a fork in the road, and the direction you choose in coming weeks will determine how your children and grandchildren remember you. More than a generation ago, Governor George Wallace stood on the steps of the Alabama State House and shouted his intolerance to the rooftops with the now-infamous words, "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."
Today, more than a half-century later, we find ourselves fighting the same exasperating battle, debating the meaning of a symbol that at various points in our history has been used to both unify and terrify, unite and intimidate. No matter what the Confederate Flag meant in 1860, it has now come to signify hatred and intolerance to a significant portion of our society. The Ku Klux Klan, American Nazi Party and White Supremacist skinheads made sure of that, and not many of us stood up in opposition; then or now.
If NASCAR is ever going to become the all-inclusive sport it aspires to be, there is no longer a place in the sport for divisive symbols. We’ve tolerated exclusionism for far too long, and it should not have taken a 21-year old racist with a high-powered rifle and a taste for blood to bring this issue to the front burner, once and for all. The issue is a hot-topic today, giving NASCAR an opportunity to do what should have been done decades ago, ridding itself of a symbol that has come to signify fear and hate to a significant portion of American society; black and white alike.
If NASCAR ever hopes to shed its longstanding image as a southern, white, male-dominated sport, it must welcome fans of all ages, all races, all genders and orientations. Stock car racing has been “our sport” for far too long.
Now, it must become “ALL our sport.”
Even George Wallace saw the light in the end, apologizing publically for his vile, racist beliefs. If the leading segregationist of his time can change, so can you.
Doing the right thing isn't always easy, or popular. But it's always right. NASCAR is standing at a fork in the road, and it matters which line you're in.
Choose wisely. The world is watching.