The No Flagging Challenge – where people photograph or video themselves taking confederate flags from [usually] private property – has taken off after a Sarasota man’s video (screen shots pictured above) went viral. The reaction from the U.S. media and from white Americans has been essentially the same regardless of political party affiliation. While there are some differences between comments from people and news outlets on the right and those on the left, the reactions have been two sides of the same coin. This article should therefore be read neither as a praise nor a condemnation of the No Flagging Challenge, but rather as a critique of the responses to it.
On the right, most have been shouting “free speech!” (even though the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects most – not all – speech from most – not all – government censorship), “that’s theft of private property!” and “nobody better trespass on my property, because I have a right to defend it and I have a shotgun!” …Or things along very similar lines. The main takeaway from this should be, conservative [white] Americans think Black Americans have no right to trespass in order to steal private property.
On the left, U.S. media and white Americans have been, on the surface, more forgiving of these Black trespassers and thieves. They say things like, “while I disagree with flying the confederate flag, a private person can still fly it on their own property. And these people are trespassing and stealing, which are technically crimes.” However, they still think a private [white] citizen has a right to fly a symbol of slavery and violent racism, and that [Black] people shouldn’t trespass on private property in order to steal these racist symbols. Self-proclaimed U.S. liberals and progressives are also expressing a very charitable (please note the sarcasm) concern for the safety of these Black trespassers and thieves. “These people are so stupid, trespassing and stealing like that, they could get shot!”
Those on the right and the left alike place heavy importance on property rights [of whites] which override any rights a [Black] person might have to live in a community that does not blatantly wave racial oppression and violence in their face. In fact, [white] rights to private property, and the protection thereof, override even Black Americans’ safety and right to not be assaulted or shot by [white] property-owners for the heinous (again, note the sarcasm) crime of trespassing on white property while being Black. These attidudes may be cloaked in individual rights rhetoric, but they are incredibly racist in three ways.
First, they contain a sort of subterranean white supremacy masquerading as individual liberty. [Mostly white] people are talking of property rights, including the right to “defend” one’s property, as if property rights are universally distributed and protected. In reality, white people have a disproportionate amount of property, and therefore a disproportionate amount of property rights. Therefore, the phrase, “property rights” becomes a euphemism for, “the unique rights and/or privileges afforded to those with property,” who are predominately white. So, when property rights are prioritized over the rights of Blacks – e.g., their right not be executed for minor crimes without due process in the “defense” of [white] private property, or their right to not have Black slavery so brazenly celebrated – white supremacy is reinforced. Whites are privileged and their interests are protected in a way that denies Black Americans legal protections and rights, places them in physical danger, and essentially slaps them in the face with a celebration of America’s racist history.
Second, these attitudes ignore both racist U.S. history and the racist present, and thus invalidate Black experiences. Because of slavery, share cropping, Jim Crow, and racist policies like red lining, Black Americans have been excluded from property ownership. So, as touched on above, “property rights” refer primarily to white property rights, and thus do not include Black Americans. Heavily emphasizing the importance of property rights and assuming they apply to everyone ignores this racist American past. It also ignores the present day consequences of this racist history (e.g., the fact that very few Black Americans own property). Ignoring this very real and very severe disadvantage to Blacks in the U.S. is invalidating because it allows for alternate, racist explanations for Black poverty and other disadvantages faced by Blacks that stem from their lack of access to property ownership (e.g., most Americans’ wealth is tied up in their homes and this wealth allows whites to do things like put up their home as collateral for a college loan). Black Americans are thus often blamed for their financial instability when, in reality, it can be traced back to their exclusion from property ownership through racist policies and slavery.
Third, such attitudes define (or perhaps, confine) Black activism in terms of what is appropriate/acceptable within a white supremacist society. Many [white] Americans support Black rights so long as Blacks fight for their rights in ways whites deem acceptable. As long as Black Americans protest, campaign, advocate, etc. in ways white people are comfortable with. For instance, “taking down” the confederate flag from a government building, like Bree Newsome did, is fantastic; whites were even celebrating Ms. Newsome’s actions and became upset when she was arrested. However, “stealing” privately owned confederate flags from private property is not okay, and [Black] people who engage in such activities are committing crimes. The distinction of what is okay and what isn’t is demonstrated by the way [white] people talk about the two forms of flag removal – one is “taking down” a confederate flag and the other is “stealing” a confederate flag. [White] people are claiming they disagree with removing private [white] citizens’ confederate flags from their private property because trespassing and stealing are crimes. Yet legally, what Bree Newsome did was also theft, but whites rallied behind her. So, while [white] people try to come across as fair, and simply in support of individual property rights, there are, in reality, complex racial undertones to this rhetoric. Essentially, the message is: “We support your rights, dearest Black Americans, but don’t fight for your rights in that way. Be more civilized. Be less Black in your Black activism. Take a hint from us civilized white people. If you want our support, you have to do it our way – the way that fits nicely into the current white supremacist society.”