KUNM

Why A Confederate Flag Flies In Upstate New York

Sep 30, 2017
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This summer was marked by public debates about Confederate monuments. But there's another debate going on about the Confederate battle flag. What message does that flags send these days, especially when it's on display in the North? North Country Public Radio's Zach Hirsch asked his neighbors in Plattsburgh, N.Y., a city near the Canadian border, why they embrace the controversial symbol?

ZACH HIRSCH, BYLINE: The Confederate battle flag in my neighbor's window made me curious. Then one day, the flag was gone, and that made me even more curious. Maybe they had second thoughts.

RICKY BARBER: Hi. My name's Ricky Barber. I'm from Plattsburgh, N.Y.

HIRSCH: So I decided to knock on his door and ask.

BARBER: I'm originally from Hazlehurst, Ga.

HIRSCH: Ricky Barber is 28 years old. He's worked in warehouses and auto mechanic shops, but he's out of work right now. He says he had the flag in the window because he needed a curtain. And he took it down only because he's moving not because he thought he'd offend someone, he says. Now it's hanging at his fiancee Becca Lee's house across town on the bedroom wall. Lee is 30, and she's from Kansas.

BECCA LEE: We are not a racist couple, and we own the flag.

HIRSCH: She has a lot of family in the South and describes herself as a Southern belle.

LEE: I don't judge people. I don't care what color skin they are. If they need defending, I'm going to do them. That's what a Southern belle does.

HIRSCH: We talk in Lee's backyard. People are grilling, and some kids are playing nearby. One of the kids happens to be black. Barber and Lee say they're not hateful people. Barber says everybody should have equal rights no matter what color their skin is. We all bleed red.

BARBER: Technically, everybody is the same race. Some people have darker pigment-ism to the skin. Some people don't.

HIRSCH: But the way he talks about race, many would find it insulting.

BARBER: I don't care who you are. You can be blacker than the ace of spades. I mean, you're going to bleed red no matter what.

HIRSCH: As we talk, they paint an unrealistic picture of the experience of people of color in America. Lee believes it's sometimes OK for white people to use the N-word. Barber doesn't accept the idea that black people are at a disadvantage in the criminal justice system.

BARBER: Equal rights is out there for everybody. But it all depends on what you do to end up in prison or in jail. It's life choices that put you there.

HIRSCH: I think we might agree to disagree on that one because I...

On average, black people are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that's more than five times the rate of whites. And in certain states, that ratio is more than 10 to 1. That's according to a study from the Sentencing Project, a nonpartisan group that advocates for prison reform. It's one of a catalog of studies showing that African-Americans are not treated the same as whites in the U.S.

BARBER: That's actually not true because I see more white people that get arrested for drugs than black people. So I don't see how somebody's going to sit there and say that, you know, a black man gets more prison time.

HIRSCH: Northern New York is mostly white and rural. So it makes sense that someone living here might know more white people who were arrested. But Barber believes skin color just isn't a factor here or anywhere in the U.S. Our conversation goes on like this. A lot of phrases and ideas that make many Americans uncomfortable or angry just don't bother Barber and Lee. The same goes for the Confederate flag they fly. Barber says he knows the South was fighting for slavery in the Civil War, but that's not why he flies the flag.

BARBER: It's because of my heritage, where I come from not because, you know, I'm are racist or because, you know, I don't like black people. That's not the case. I have black family. I have black friends.

HIRSCH: Barber also says it's how he honors the Southern soldiers who died in the Civil War. But political scientists and historians say it mostly disappeared right after the Civil War and came back almost a century later as a symbol of racism, even violence. It was embraced by the Ku Klux Klan during the civil rights movement. Barber and Lee say all that modern history is in the past. They say the Confederate flag is now just the flag of the South. But they also say it's becoming something else.

BARBER: You'll hear all these people, you know, that gathered down in the South that are blacks. What about their Black Lives Matter flags and stuff like that? That's pushing back on the white people. Us. white people, you know, we retaliate by, hey, we got the Confederate flag and what not, you know?

HIRSCH: So is that retaliation against...

BARBER: It's not, you know, retaliation exactly. It's more of, look. This is, you know, our flag. This is what we stand for. You guys had the Black Lives Matter flags. That's what you guys stand for.

HIRSCH: Suddenly, the conversation gets even more complicated.

BARBER: Can you come here for a second, please?

HIRSCH: He calls over the African-American child who's playing nearby.

BARBER: Are you opposed to the Confederate flag at all? Do you have a problem with that flag, as a black person?

HIRSCH: We can't use the 13-year-old's voice because we don't have parental permission. The teen looks uncomfortable. Barber and Lee keep pushing for an answer. And there's a long pause. Then the teenager tells them that the Confederate flag is flown by people who want to have slavery happen again in America. This isn't coming from the media or an historian or a liberal professor but from a child who's playing right here in their neighborhood. The four of us stand there awkwardly. Barber and Lee seemed stunned.

HIRSCH: Doesn't that make you reconsider, you know, what it means.

LEE: We would just have to have a long talk explaining why we do it ourselves. Have I ever disrespected you in any way to show that I was racist?

HIRSCH: The teen says no. And Lee gets back to her argument.

LEE: To me, it's a Southern flag. And we grown to not be a racist type. And that's why I hang up the flag, is to show what the flag was in the past. And now we get to bring that to our children saying, hey, this is what the flag meant back in the day. Now this is what it means now to us.

HIRSCH: We talk a while longer about Charlottesville, Va., about Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who photographed himself with the battle flag before murdering nine black people in a church. They both say they'd take it down temporarily if they were afraid of offending company or neighbors. But at the end of the day, they're going to keep flying the Confederate flag. For NPR News, I'm Zach Hirsch in Plattsburgh, N.Y. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.