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.