A government agency is now investigating claims that the Gadsen Flag is inherently racist. But is that claim actually true?
According to constitutional law professor and legal expert Eugene Volokh, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission first decided to investigate these racism claims two months ago. The original case, Shelton D. [pseudonym] v. Brennan, opened when a federal worker lodged a “hostile work environment” complaint.
The worker, “Shelton,” argued that a coworker created a racially insensitive environment by wearing a Gadsen Flag hat. Why was wearing a Gadsen Flag hat insensitive, you ask? Because the Gadsen Flag is a “historical indicator of white resentment against blacks stemming largely from the Tea Party.”
The EEOC’s review of the Gadsen Flag’s history is where things get interesting. The agency first rejects Shelton’s argument about racism, but decides to investigate the claims of racism anyway. The agency explains its reasoning later in the ruling:
However, whatever the historic origins and meaning of the symbol, it also has since been sometimes interpreted to convey racially-tinged messages in some contexts. For example, in June 2014, assailants with connections to white supremacist groups draped the bodies of two murdered police officers with the Gadsden flag during their Las Vegas, Nevada shooting spree. … Additionally, in 2014, African-American New Haven firefighters complained about the presence of the Gadsden flag in the workplace on the basis that the symbol was racially insensitive. … Certainly, Complainant ascribes racial connotations to the symbol based on observations that it is sometimes displayed in racially-tinged situations.
In light of the ambiguity in the current meaning of this symbol, we find that Complainant’s claim must be investigated to determine the specific context in which C1 displayed the symbol in the workplace.
In other words? Because some racists committed terrible acts using the Gadsen Flag, some other people now see the flag as racially insensitive. This, in the EEOC’s world, is worth investigating as a possible basis for modern-day racism claims.
To be fair, there is some basis for Shelton’s thinking. Politicians and activists accused the modern Tea Party movement of being full of racists since the beginning. Many activists still accuse the Tea Party of racism to this day. And admittedly, a small number of bad actors have actually brought racially biased signs to Tea Party events. Further, as the EEOC correctly highlighted, white supremacists have used the Gadsen Flag to commit horrible acts in recent years.
Because of these events, some may try to compare the Gadsen Flag to the Confederate Flag. The latter, of course, became the subject of controversy after Dylann Roof murdered nine people in a South Carolina church. Both flags have been criticized as symbols of latent racism in American society, and (for the sake of argument) both represent “racist” groups.
Despite these superficial points of comparison, a small bit of research demonstrates how these two situations are actually very different.
The Confederate States seceded from the Union with slavery and racism directly in mind. This leaves the Confederate Flag with deep and unmistakable ties to slavery, despite attempts made by supporters to focus on Southern history.
By contrast, Christopher Gadsen created the Gadsen Flag as a symbol of freedom from tyranny. Though Gadsen was a slave trader, he did not plan or intend for the Gadsen Flag to defend slavery. Rather, the Gadsen Flag embodied early American ideals–which is exactly why it became so popular with the modern Tea Party.
Further, claims that the modern Tea Party is racist are questionable, at best. The modern Tea Party’s original platform focused on economics and regulatory policy, with almost no focus on social issues. And as Cathy Young at RealClearPolitics rightly points out, many “studies” accusing the Tea Party of harboring racist attitudes aren’t all they are cracked up to be. Further, it’s worth noting that many examples of “Tea Party racism” were revealed to be fabricated, or were attempts by outsiders to infiltrate and pose as actual Tea Party members.
People can, of course, corrupt otherwise good symbols. The biggest example of this is the swastika, which originally symbolized luck and fortune in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. However, thanks to Hitler and the Nazis, the West more commonly connects the swastika with the Holocaust.
Truly corrupting a symbol in this way, however, requires more than mere dislike or controversy. In a modern pluralistic society, different symbols can–and frequently will–mean different things to different people. Some people dislike the Gadsen Flag for its connections to “racist” Tea Partiers, even though that argument isn’t correct historically. It’s similar to how some people wear Che Guevara shirts to promote revolution and socialism, even though the “real” Che was a totalitarian dictator.
For symbols to achieve a swastika-level shift in meaning, the new negative connotations have to go beyond mere disagreements. The bad acts associated with the symbol must be truly evil and unmistakably consistent.
So is the Gadsen Flag a modern day swastika?
No, of course not–but that is exactly what the EEOC would be arguing if its investigation concludes that the Gadsen Flag is racist. The EEOC would be asserting that a handful of actual racists and the biases in America’s political discourse are powerful enough to have completely changed the historic and traditional meaning of one of America’s founding symbols. Politics would trump culture, and the government would end up overwriting part of America’s history.
I hope and pray that the EEOC agrees with me, and rules after its investigation that this claim of racism is absurd.