Confederate flags in the educational environment

Following the August events in Charlottesville and an ongoing nationwide discourse about confederate monuments, there has also been a quiet groundswell of movement happening around the issue of confederate flags in schools. Recent news reports have included community discourse around a rash of racial incidents in Pennsylvania, racial tensions at a high school football game caused by students displaying the flag in Colorado, and a number of schools and districts across the nation, from Indiana to Durham, North Carolina, are beginning to ban the Confederate flag and apparel.  Most recently, a similar issue came up when a school in San Antonio changed its name from Robert E. Lee to just Lee.  A part of me feels relief. Another part of me is sad we are still having this discussion.  When I was a teenager in the late 90s, I advocated for the removal of Confederate apparel in my own school, and it was eventually banned.  Even at that time, I thought we were decades late in having the dialogue, but the KKK had a strong legacy in the area of southwest Ohio where I grew up. There were also a lot of migrants from the south who held onto their confederate pride. Students wore confederate belt buckles, t-shirts, buttons, and patches, and attached the full flag to the back window of their trucks.

The result was an incredibly hostile environment for the few students of color who attended our rural school, including me. Being a teenager is hard enough without having to worry about racial intimidation. Today, I think about what other children are possibly enduring after last November’s election. I wonder about rural districts in Louisiana and beyond where students of color comprise a small minority.  I lived in a northern state that twice had helped elect President Clinton, a man who made a speech on how affirmative action was “good for America.” I published a poem in the school newspaper called “Ode to the Ohio Rebel” which pointed out that our state had contributed the most soldiers to the Union army, but my classmates weren’t deterred. I can only imagine how some teenagers in the south, as well as across the country, might feel they have free license on their hatred now. That’s why a clear message to ban the Confederate flag is important to protect students of color.

In New Orleans and other urban districts, students might not think much about the issue. The majority of students in our public schools are African American so it would be almost masochistic for a student to wear a confederate flag.  African American students encounter racism and implicit bias in and out of school and are affected by a larger context of institutional racism. Additionally, they deal with the subtle and not-so-subtle glorification of the Confederacy and other symbols of white supremacy throughout our city. They walk and drive on Jefferson Davis Parkway, a tribute to the President of the Confederacy who helped provoke a war in order to protect the South’s economic interest in slavery. They pass by Jackson Square, where Andrew Jackson, who signed the Indian Removal Act, is placed on a pedestal. Lusher Charter School, named after a segregationist who believed in education as a means to maintain white dominance, is one of the most sought-after schools in the city.  There may not be peer-to-peer messaging, but the message is clear on a larger community scale.

By banning the confederate flags in schools, we acknowledge they are harmful in certain environments. Courts have allowed these bans because they agree these symbols exacerbate racial hostilities, lead to fights, and cause disruptions in school. While the first amendment legally protects these same symbols in our communities, we might still reflect on its impact and what it means for the children, as well as adults in New Orleans, to have them. We have made progress in the last year with the removal of four monuments, but we can’t forget there is still more work to be done. We can join together with the Take Em’ Down Nola Coalition to press the city and Orleans Parish School Board to continue moving forward with the removal of all symbols of racism from our streets and schools.  While schools across the nation seek these bans, we should focus our energy on the educational environment that is everywhere around us.

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