I remember seeing, in the 1970s, little roadside tourist tchotcke shacks along the small two lane highway, starting somewhere around Tennessee, if memory serves. We never stopped at these places, which looked like a strong wind would blow them down. But from the car you could see their wares proudly displayed, including the ubiquitous confederate flag beach towels that flapped on makeshift clotheslines. Those towels felt like the totem of a border crossing to me: they marked your entry into The South. My folks certainly had enough connection to the confederate past either to feel shame or closeted pride about (my great great grandfather was a lieutenant in the confederacy who survived to go home and become the mayor of the town my father was born in, along with baseball legend, Ty Cobb). But they never talked about that past with us, and they never ever had or displayed any images of the confederate flag. Those beach towels were meant for so-called "redneck," lower class whites I suspect. And my parents had grown up somewhat solidly (despite the intervention of the Great Depression) middle class. But I don't mean to sell my parents short; while it's perhaps impossible to avoid imbibing raced thinking growing up in the US, my parents did a pretty good job of keeping us open minded, and we all had diverse friends growing up. My father sometimes felt a post-civil rights era defensiveness about slams against the South (he used to say he found Boston more segregated than anything he had seen back home after we lived there in the early 1960s). But my parents--and especially my liberal mother-- fostered pro-civil rights values in us.
It's been awhile since I've seen the confederate flag used to adorn an object openly for sale, but in the above photo my husband holds an iPhone cover we saw in a mall kiosk in Kansas this week. It was the sole one, sandwiched in between the rhinestone encrusted ones, and polka dotted ones, and brightly colored ones. To many folks, that flag is a US swastika and should be banned. And I wouldn't argue against that approach. Clearly States should be forbidden from displaying a flag with the confederate flag in it. But I take a more skeptical "free speech" approach when considering an average person displaying it. However wrongheaded and ahistorical it may be, I think the flag is sometimes wielded by white Southerners as a relatively amorphous sign of (somewhat defensive) "Pro-South" sentiment. That is, not as "yay, slavery and genocidal racism!" but more as a sign that has come to mean the South qua the South. Context is clearly important in reading the deployment of a sign. But maybe the sentiment at stake in displaying the confederate flage truly is a "Pro WHITE South" sentiment. Which is why I could never fully defend the flag as "free speech" rather than hate speech.
So how to read the odd conflation of this cover for an expensive, highly sophisticated phone, with global reach both in its manufacture and renown, and a shamed, redneck-identified, burlap sack of a symbol? I was shocked to see it innocently nestled in an innocuous mall kiosk. In part, it made me worry about this place my husband has moved to, where I now spend half my time. The demographics skew heavily white, and the political climate is scary conservative: KS is one of those states that tried to keep President Obama off the reelection ballot in 2012, using the "Birther" smear that he wasn't born in America (which is pretty clearly code for "he ain't white") While a private citizen filed the complaint, KS Secretary of State Kobach said: "“I don’t think it’s a frivolous objection. I do think the factual record could be supplemented.” That's enough context to make me shudder when I see a piece of plastic for sale with a confederate flag on it.