The hidden Hazzard of viral activism

Targeting the symbols of racism alone distracts society from tackling the actual problem.

Dukes of Hazzard Car General Lee Confederate
Calls to remove the Confederate flag highlights disproportionate attention on racist symbols, writes Beydoun [Getty]

Last week, a daring young black woman climbed up the flagpole in Charleston and took down the Confederate flag. Bree Newsome’s rebellious act at the South Carolina capitol followed a white man’s killing of nine black people at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, the most recent tragedy that has intensified calls to do away with the Confederate flag – an emblem that, for many, represents both old and new Jim Crow. 

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Beneath the surface of the Confederate flag debate is an emergent discourse that centres around symbolic, instead of structural, racism.

Indeed, political symbols – like the Confederate flag or the Nazi Swastika – were designed to represent very specific structures and ideals. In short, they were spawned to signify the essential values of slavery and segregation for the former, and Aryan supremacy and anti-Semitism for the latter. 

Disproportionate attention 

Whether these emblems can symbolise something else aside from the specific institutions or structures that spawned them is contested within academic spaces, while emergent movements on the ground and in viral spaces are ever more committed to removing them for good.

However, this question begs another, namely – whether disproportionate attention on eliminating racist emblems diminishes the deeper movement to erode, and ultimately remove, the roots of structural racism.

Apart from waving in front of the South Carolina capitol, the Confederate flag finds prominence in other spheres of American life. A Southern American fixture, the flag is immortalised in the Dukes of Hazzard, a television programme which originally aired from 1979 through 1985. 

Dukes featured a bright orange 1969 Dodge Charger, aptly named General Lee, with the signature blue stripes crisscrossed on its roof. The programme, currently in syndication, has drawn the ire of anti-Confederate flag protesters.  

Last week, the US television network TV Land removed Dukes from its schedule, in response to the public outcry against the flag, which reached a climax after Newsome’s act at the capitol.

The Confederate flag is a far easier target to mobilise against than the school-to-prison pipeline, or other dimensions of institutionalised racism.

However, TV Land’s decision was also met with opposition. Familiar voices from the right contended that the flag represented a distinct American heritage, dislodged from slavery, segregation, and white supremacy.

Southern sensibilities

Other critics stated that the Confederate flag has taken on a new meaning, appropriated to signify contemporary Southern sensibilities and values.   

However, the most compelling views came from commentators who supported South Carolina’s removal of the Confederate flag, but opposed the movement to eliminate it from popular culture.

The Confederate flag still waving as the official emblem of the State of South Carolina is (perceived to be) tantamount to government endorsement of everything the symbol stood and stands for; while its appearance on television, film, and other forms of popular media is private expression – goes the logic.

The distinction is an interesting one. Certainly, the US cannot ignore, erase, or entirely move away from its history of racial apartheid. This history residually colours modern American life, and through the lens of iconic television programmes like the Dukes of Hazzard, illustrates just how pervasive the culture of romanticising Antebellum America and Jim Crow truly was – not just in the South, but also throughout the US and its nationwide popular media.

Flag-clad Dodge Charger

The celebration of the Confederate flag-clad Dodge Charger on the Dukes of Hazzard, or even latent racist illustrations of American life on other heavily syndicated series like Leave it to Beaver or I Dream of Genie, for instance, offer reels of America’s racist past. These “snapshots” of American history should be strategically deployed, not dismissed.

Indeed, calls to remove the Confederate flag anywhere and everywhere it exists highlights disproportionate attention on racist symbols, instead of the underlying structures that create them.

The removal of racist symbols should not be simply for political gain. Rather, these removals should be steps and springboards towards dismantling the racist baselines that spawned them, and the unequal institutions that are represented today. 

Dukes featured a bright orange 1969 Dodge Charger with the blue stripes crisscrossed on its roof [Getty]
Dukes featured a bright orange 1969 Dodge Charger with the blue stripes crisscrossed on its roof [Getty]

The Confederate flag is a far easier target to mobilise against than the school-to-prison pipeline, or other dimensions of institutionalised racism.

In addition to reducing the visibility of these symbols, removing an emblem is a short-term achievement, ultimately slowing the large-scale societal changes that must be undertaken to address entrenched racial issues in the US like the disproportionate policing and incarceration of black and brown bodies – reforming these problems requires sustained, systematic reform.

Social media generation

This is particularly true in today’s social media generation, where hashtags, images, and catchy phrases steer political discourse far closer to the surface. Political speak and strategy, therefore, tend to focus on what is trendy and trending. While gravitating towards whatever is currently trending has a unifying effect, it also creates problems of its own. 

On the positive end, the trend to remove the Confederate flag has mobilised a broad following of global, diverse, and even prominent voices, which has forced the hand of entities like TV Land to take action and drop Dukes of Hazzard from its schedule. 

On the negative end, a unified, viral trend tends to homogenise the message, overpowering nuanced voices and positions. Voices that, in the Confederate flag debate, vehemently stand against government endorsement of patently racist symbols, but flag their strategic value as weaponry in the long fight against structural racism, and the even longer walk towards freedom. 

Khaled A Beydoun is an assistant professor of law at the Barry University Dwayne O Andreas School of Law. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.