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Confronting racist symbols is hard but necessary

We are happy to see that on Thursday the Tupper Lake Town Council passed a resolution announcing that not only does it oppose racism, but it also discourages citizens from spreading racism by displaying racist symbols.

Municipal government can’t require that racist symbols be removed, and the resolution makes a big note of supporting First Amendment rights. But a community’s elected leaders have free-speech rights, too. The people voted them into office to speak up for the common good, and they do so often, from approving tourism slogans to asking people to conserve water in summer. They can and should defend minorities’ right to be here in peace without harassment. They can and should ask a few people to stop putting up signs that warn people of a particular skin color, religion or orientation that they are not wanted.

One thing the resolution could have done is give examples of racist symbols. To be clear, the Confederate flag is one of them. (Note: The Confederate States of America had several official flags, but the flag now commonly called the Confederate flag never represented the CSA in any official capacity. It was flown by the Army of Northern Virginia, but for simplicity’s sake we will call it the Confederate flag here.)

Some white people don’t like to hear that because they say it stands for outlaw attitude or Southern pride, but that “rebel” meaning is a red herring mostly added in the 1970s, when the flag’s meaning got confused by being used alongside outlaw country and Southern rock music, NASCAR racing and the greater redneck culture that emerged in that decade. Because the ’70s were the formative years of many of today’s adults, many don’t appreciate that before then, the flag’s meaning was much more stark. People knew it as what members of white Citizens Councils and the Ku Klux Klan displayed to counter Civil Rights Movement protests and to otherwise intimidate Black people. It was the flag “Dixiecrats” added to flags of Southern states to show that these states were dominated by white people who had fought to preserve slavery. It was the flag flown at Montgomery, Alabama’s Robert E. Lee High School, named in reaction to the 1955 Supreme Court ruling overturning school segregation, to show newly integrated Black students who was in charge. (In good news, the city of Montgomery decided this year to change the names of Lee, Jefferson Davis and Sidney Lanier high schools.)

Black people know this, but white folks don’t always appreciate how mean the flag is.

This local discussion was prompted after a few Tupper Lake residents started flying Confederate flags at their homes recently, some on main thoroughfares. That misrepresents the town, making it look unwelcoming. As was inevitable, someone photographed the flags and spread the bad word further. Town Councilman John Quinn and many others saw a picture of one in the Adirondack Explorer magazine. In an effort to improve things, Quinn explained at a September board meeting that he wanted to write a resolution declaring Tupper is a welcoming town that opposes racism, and asking people with Confederate flags to take them down. The rest of the board seemed to welcome the idea.

But when he presented the draft resolution at an Oct. 9 meeting, no one seconded his motion, and it died without even a discussion, much less a vote.

That, too, made Tupper Lake look bad, but thankfully the town board members picked up the conversation.

Many people thought it would be better to just pass an anti-racism resolution without mentioning symbols such as the Confederate flag. That, however, would have left two big questions hanging: Why now, and what do we do about it?

If the board doesn’t acknowledge the town has something that needs improvement, and doesn’t issue a call to action, is it really doing anything, or just trying to look like it is?

Instead, the town board members made the tough call to stand up to their neighbors hurting the community’s good name, and specifically offending Black residents and visitors. Those elected leaders may get some grief for that in the short term, but not rebuking racism could lead it to spread further. Better to try to correct it now than to face a really toxic situation down the road.

If those people leave those flags flying in spite of the community’s plea, well, that is on them.

The Adirondacks appear to have gotten a lot more non-white visitors this year as the COVID-19 pandemic drove outdoor tourism to super-high levels. That is likely to continue. Racist symbols are not just wrong; they’re bad for business.

Tupper Lake is by no means the only Adirondack town where Confederate flags can be seen, but it is one where elected leaders took up the issue, thanks to Quinn. It’s a hard but necessary conversation.

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