Deep debate cast aside for quick decisions based on ‘perception’

FILE -- The Confederate battle flag flies near the South Carolina State Capitol building in Columbia in this file framegrab.

Over the past few days it has been stated repeatedly that the Confederate flag should be removed from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds because it’s a racist symbol – no matter what its advocates claim – because “perception is reality.”

Certainly the Confederate battle flag was misappropriated in the 1950s and ‘60s by groups opposed to the Civil Rights movement. That these groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, also made ample use of the Stars and Stripes, seems to be of small concern to those who would like to see the Confederate flag placed in a museum.

While there’s plenty of room for debate about the role of the Confederate flag in public life, if the basis for one’s arguments includes “perception is reality,” then one is starting from a position of weakness.

History has shown that the idea that perception can be both erroneous and damaging.

Black Codes and Jim Crow laws were enforced in part because blacks were perceived by many as being inferior to whites. Most ex-slaves, thanks to law and/or custom, had never been taught to read or write. They were therefore perceived as being less intelligent than whites, even though the playing field was never close to being level.

This perception continues to hold currency even today among some, who mistakenly believe that blacks as a group don’t have the capacity to keep pace with whites and some other ethnic groups, while overlooking the fact that in many areas where African-Americans make up a significant percentage of the population substandard schooling and a history of state indifference to education are the real culprits.

Along those same lines, blacks were perceived well into the 20th century as lacking the educational skills necessary for college. At the time of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, only about 10,000 American blacks – one in 1,000 – were college educated, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. Today, more than 4.5 million blacks hold a four-year college degree.

Consider also that blacks who volunteered or were drafted into the US military were discriminated against for many decades because of the perception that they were suited only for “heavy lifting” rather than positions that relied on brainpower.

At the outset of the Civil War, neither free blacks nor escaped slaves were allowed to enlist in the Union Army. The prevailing view among Union officers was that the black man lacked mental ability, discipline and courage, and could never be trained to fight like the white soldier. It would take the better part of two years before white military leaders, desperate for troops, consented to the use of black soldiers, enabling this error to be disproved.

Up into World War I, black troops were often given thankless tasks that white soldiers sought to avoid and racial segregation in the US military remained in place until after World War II.

During the latter conflict, the Navy assigned most who did enlist to mess duty and the Marines barred blacks entirely until 1942. The military as a whole held to the “perception” that blacks weren’t as good at “soldiering” as whites.

Once reality was allowed to trump perception, blacks did just as well as whites.

Prior to the Civil Rights Movement, and in some cases afterward, there was the perception that whites were the Chosen people, while blacks were meant to be servants and that God supported racial segregation.

Relatively few misguided individuals hold to such beliefs today, fortunately.

Prior to the mid-1950s, the national news media didn’t perceive the persecution of blacks in the Deep South as being worthy of more than scant coverage, enabling extremists to kill, maim and intimidate blacks with almost complete impunity. With the murder of 14-year-old Emmitt Till in 1955 that began to change.

The murder of civil rights activists in Mississippi in 1964 further prompted national news media to focus attention on Deep South transgressions. Once the major news media began to shine its spotlight on what was going on in the region regarding terror and mayhem, the federal government began to take a greater interest in putting an end to it.

There are countless other examples of “perceptions” faced by blacks, along with those other minorities and women, that we now understand were not just misguided but out-and-out wrong.

None of the above is to say that the flag issue isn’t worthy of discussion. But it should be done with logic and rational thought, rather than focusing on nebulous feelings that can neither be proved nor disproved.

The idea that perception is reality was a slippery slope argument 150 years ago, 100 years ago and 50 years ago. It remains one today. One might hope that we might have learned enough from past fallacies not to fall prey to them again.

22 thoughts on “Deep debate cast aside for quick decisions based on ‘perception’

  1. What a thoughtful, though grim read. It’s hard to imagine, not having grown up in a segregated society, even though racism was, and still is, prevalent in my culture(s). The story of Till’s murder, and the casket image are truly horrific. It’s beyond conception.

    As for the flag issue, I’ve too far removed to know whether it is seen as a racist image or some form of nostalgia. But even the nostalgia eeks of a preference for racism and slavery. Bad things happened in every society’s past.

    I’m not sure (and I’ve read elsewhere about the flag) why one would fly a historical flag for a no longer extant confederacy though.

    • It’s a complicated issue, no doubt. One of the things that’s has been poorly reported is that the flag is being flown next to a monument to South Carolina’s Confederate dead. One has to take into account that one of every four white male South Carolinians between 17 and 45 died or were killed during our Civil War. Again, the issue can certainly be brought up and debated, but to simply lump in all individuals who don’t agree that the flag should be removed and to label them as racist because they disagree, as some are doing, is simplistic and divisive.

      I appreciate you taking time to comment on something that must seem somewhat bewildering. And you’re right, all society’s have histories with good and bad.

      • *mercer*! Predictive text – murder. One of the posts I read was about why the confed flag wasn’t at half mast. So, it then gave the detail about how it was moved to the current location, and that it was also fixed so not able to be raised and lowered. I took it at face value so assume that was correct. I take your point too about the monument to commemorate the dead, which isn’t the same as being flown from a civic building.

        But yes. Most bewildering and perplexing. Happy to read about it and learn, but far too complex to form a view.

      • And that’s what separates you from so many – you hold off making snap judgments on complex issues that you’re not well versed on. It’s staggering how many people pop off on anything, no matter how little they know. I’ve learned to pay homage to the idea that it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.

      • I’m sure I make crass comments too, but for the most part I prefer to fight battles I can win. And the extent, history, economic factors of racism in the Deep South of a country I’ve never visited isn’t exactly my No 1 Master,inf topic. I’d be better off discussing Russian anarchists.

        Sure, one can voice an opinion, of sorts, but in something so complicated, I find it easier to be honest and say I just don’t know enough about it. I’ve written a couple of posts on one of my other blogs, usually about feminism or animal rights/vegetarianism, and told people not to bother arguing if they don’t know what they are talking about.

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  3. Yes, but… It’s not as if the Confederate battlefield flag can be divorced from the Confederacy at large and what it represents. It’s not, in and of itself, a neutral symbol upon which others project their own beliefs or prejudices. It represents a specific thing: a Confederate field-army and Confederate militarism in general. If another symbol of rememberance existed, free of observable political meaning, perhaps that would be more acceptable?

    • Yes, it would be. There are other Confederate-era flags, for example, that don’t have the baggage of the Confederate flag – but I have a gut feeling that nothing connected to the Confederacy will be acceptable.

      And I am reading increasingly of individuals who are now verbalizing the need to scrub the names of Antebellum and Confederate leaders from buildings, streets, etc.

      The “best” comment I’ve read so far was on an online petition that stated that “There is no room in a democratically diverse society for the Confederate flag.” Apparently not everyone is fully cognizant of the definition of diverse.

      Another example of “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

      • Perhaps something representing the Confederate dead rather than the Confederacy itself would be more acceptable? A flag incorporating a flower or some such symbolism? The Confederate rose/Dixie rosemallow? Similar to the Easter Lilly here in Ireland or the Poppy in the British Commonwealth? Would that assuage the arguments on both sides of the debate?

        I would disagree with tearing up history through street-renamings etc. though perhaps having the bust of a Confederate officer-turned-KKK founder on government property would be an exception. Some things cannot be contexualised.

      • Ah, you have me there. Just read his speech in 1875 to an African-American gathering:

        “”Ladies and Gentlemen I accept the flowers as a memento of reconciliation between the white and colored races of the southern states. I accept it more particularly as it comes from a colored lady, for if there is any one on God’s earth who loves the ladies I believe it is myself. ( Immense applause and laughter.) This day is a day that is proud to me, having occupied the position that I did for the past twelve years, and been misunderstood by your race. This is the first opportunity I have had during that time to say that I am your friend. I am here a representative of the southern people, one more slandered and maligned than any man in the nation.
        I will say to you and to the colored race that men who bore arms and followed the flag of the Confederacy are, with very few exceptions, your friends. I have an opportunity of saying what I have always felt – that I am your friend, for my interests are your interests, and your interests are my interests. We were born on the same soil, breathe the same air, and live in the same land. Why, then, can we not live as brothers? I will say that when the war broke out I felt it my duty to stand by my people. When the time came I did the best I could, and I don’t believe I flickered. I came here with the jeers of some white people, who think that I am doing wrong. I believe that I can exert some influence, and do much to assist the people in strengthening fraternal relations, and shall do all in my power to bring about peace. It has always been my motto to elevate every man- to depress none. (Applause.) I want to elevate you to take positions in law offices, in stores, on farms, and wherever you are capable of going.
        I have not said anything about politics today. I don’t propose to say anything about politics. You have a right to elect whom you please; vote for the man you think best, and I think, when that is done, that you and I are freemen. Do as you consider right and honest in electing men for office. I did not come here to make you a long speech, although invited to do so by you. I am not much of a speaker, and my business prevented me from preparing myself. I came to meet you as friends, and welcome you to the white people. I want you to come nearer to us. When I can serve you I will do so. We have but one flag, one country; let us stand together. We may differ in color, but not in sentiment. Use your best judgement in selecting men for office and vote as you think right.
        Many things have been said about me which are wrong, and which white and black persons here, who stood by me through the war, can contradict. I have been in the heat of battle when colored men, asked me to protect them. I have placed myself between them and the bullets of my men, and told them they should be kept unharmed. Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I’ll come to your relief. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand.” (Prolonged applause.)”

        Complications abound, it seems 😉

  4. “But it should be done with logic and rational thought, rather than focusing on nebulous feelings that can neither be proved nor disproved.”

    For obvious reasons, I hesitated to use a phrase yesterday because it came from Mary Chesnut and involved a different situation, but… used as stand-alone words, we might do well to keep them in mind. I used a phrase yesterday, but… “Calm determination… and cool brains.” There is, after all, that slippery slope that many can’t seem to see.

  5. I appreciate your well thought out perspective and most hardily agree that South Carolina’s motive for flying the flag of the Army of Northern VA had more to do with racism and not much to do with heritage or honoring Confederate dead. So, yeah it needs to go from the statehouse. However, I don’t believe for a second it’s about the flag. It’s about removing any symbol that the left can make political hay about. After all, Old Glory flew over a united nation that permitted and encouraged slavery for nearly 100 years prior to the ACW. Is Old Glory next? At one college in CA it was banned causing a minor bru-ha-ha before being restored. The left never gives up so stay tuned.

    • No, this won’t end with the removal of the flag from the Statehouse in Columbia. There is already talk about removing other statues and renaming streets in the city. I, personally, think the statue to Ben Tillman should be moved off the Statehouse grounds, but to another place where his “legacy” can be seen. He did much to poison race relations and erasing the past isn’t the solution. However, removing all vestiges of those who are currently out of political favor sounds like something from the old Soviet Union.

  6. PRECEPTION……….must be acted upon. Therefore, let us remove the American flag from all of America…….because our President has the perception that OLD GLORY is really ALL GORY and he has persisted in dishonoring the flag by standing in opposition to Americans honoring the flag by their
    respect and pledge to the flag.

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