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Charles Rehn - Democrat for President 2004

A Conversation With America
Questions That Must Be Answered
Web Edition (c) 2002, 2003 Charles Rehn All Rights Reserved




The Confederate Flag


Back in 1993, I decided to be adventurous, and accept an offer to move to Atlanta, Georgia to work with some people who had created a company requiring a broad background in computer technology.

I looked forward to the challenges of the position.  But I also looked forward to getting to know and understanding the people.

Living where I did in California, I was not exposed to diversity. When I think about attending elementary school, I can only remember having 1 black student in the school, maybe 2, but not at the same time.

The only things I ever knew about the south came straight from the pages of history: the Civil War, Slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, Desegregation, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Robert E. Lee, The Confederate Flag, predjudice and inequality. 

The things I knew were shaped by the images on tv and in the movies, and the crime reports on the tv news.  In a way, you might say I was concerned I would be driving from California into what seemed to be a completely different culture, and what my limited exposure caused me to believe may be a hostile environment.

As much as I understood the issues of those times, I had not experienced them.   Like many people, it's easy to understand conceptually, but it's difficult to know what it was like to live in those times, unless you were there. I had no way to know what it was really like in the south, what made it different, and what was the same as what I was used to.

What was really funny for me were all the times people asked questions about things that had to have been based on tv shows and advertising about Californians.  "Do you really eat lots of bean sprouts?"  I swear, someone asked me that question.  It made me realize that we Americans don't really know much about each other.

I stopped in many cities as I drove and pulled a trailer those 3,000 miles.  I was amazed at the beauty of our country.  And, I was inspried by the hospitality of all the people I met along the way.  It was great to trade stories and talk about things that people do, and how they feel about things. 

I'd often ask people questions that would surprise them.  The kinds of questions that people actually want to answer on topics that we're not exactly encouraged to discuss. People are really curious to know if  "it's just them" or if other people think what they think too.  I love those kinds of discussions.

When I first pulled into Atlanta, I stopped at a little restaurant my associates had directed me to as a meeting point.  I decided to have dinner while I waited for them to arrive, and lead me to their residence.

I won't go into the details, but the message I clearly received, as I looked around the restaurant and realized that I was the only white customer there, was they they didn't serve white people.  I really hadn't given things like that a consideration before.   But, I had no difficulty understanding where they learned that practice.

My associates finally came and led me to an apartment building where they lived.   As we went into the complex, I noticed about 30 or so people having a barbeque and pool party off to the right side of the front entrance.

After talking for a while that night, we went to bed. The next morning, they suggested that we start the day by taking a swim. So, we put on our suits and walked up to the entrance of the pool area.   There, we found a sign that said that the pool was closed for cleaning. 

After making a few calls, we were told that a number of residents complained that the pool had been contaminated because of the black people who had been swimming in it the day before.  The supposed contamination had nothing to do with dirt.

I was sitting in my house one night, working, when there was a knock on the door. It was the boy who lived next door, a 12 year old named Rick.  He asked me "My dad wants to know if all of your friends are niggers?"

I looked at him, and was a little confused, and then realized that the only people who had come to my house in the 6 weeks I had been there were African Americans.  I looked around the neighborhood outside, and saw Confederate flags proudly flying on every house on the street, except mine.

I was fascinated by the discussions about laws requiring Northern Georgians to own guns in order to defend the state from attacks from the north. With little effort, I was able to determine that there are people in the south who believe that the south will rise again.

Now, don't take this wrong.. I loved Atlanta.. I think it's beautiful...  I met many great people there.  But I also became aware of the beliefs and convictions of some people with whom I disagree.

I remember that even then there was a controvery over whether it was appropriate for the Confederate Flag to fly above the Georgia Dome.  I really didn't understand why it was a big deal.  After all, it was just a flag. But I could tell it was an issue that generated a great deal of tension.

I also began observing people, and noting the way people of different races interacted with each other.  I was surprised at the divisions in the way people were treated.   I tried to imagine what it would be like if I was a black person.  I re-read the book "Black Like Me".

And then, I began to ask these people I know a surprising question.  I'd say to them "Ya know, where I come from, I haven't experienced a great deal of predjudice.    But I have to say, if I had to put up with what you put up with... the discrimination, insults, lower pay... I'm not sure I could handle it.  How do you put up with it?"

To a person, I always got the same heavy sigh, a look as if to say they were glad someobody even cared to ask, followed by the same answer. 

"Nobody wants to get hurt hurt, so we just live our lives and mind our own business and try to stay out of each other's way."

There's a great deal of wisdom in that answer.  Yet, it always made me believe that the people who answered my question that way were saying it more out of giving up on confronting those things that suppressed and oppressed them.  And, that troubled me. 

Where I come from, people generally believe that racism is basically a thing of the past, like polio or tuberculosis.  It sprang up and haunted us from time to time, but it was no longer a problem that was systemic, or deserving of continued efforts to remedy.

A few years later, after moving back to California, I was living in a small town just about 20 miles from the western entrance to Yosemite. It was a gorgeous, peaceful place to live. 

It was a place that was very quiet on the weekdays, and very busy on the weekends when the tourists would arrive in the area for a weekend in the woods.  The statistics said that more than 40% of the people who visitied Yosemite were either from distant places in the United States, or from foreign countries.

One day, I walked into a little store that served as the "center" for business and the community on top of Priest's Grade.  While I was waiting in line, I looked up and saw a display selling, among other things, bandanas of the Confederate Flag.  I thought about the visitor's statistics, and wondered if they understood what the Confederate Flag symbolizes to many people.

When I got to the front of the line, and it was my turn to check out my groceries, I said to the clerk "I know this may sound a little unusual, and understand, I don't have a personal problem with it, but did you know that the Confederate Flag is a very threatening thing to a lot of people?".

She just looked up at me like I was a problem she didn't want to have to deal with.

So, I said, "Really, this isn't a problem for me, I was just wondering if you were aware of how some people see it?"

She looked me straight in the eye and said, "You''ll have to take this up with the manager".

I replied "No, really, you might just want to tell the boss, in case they didn't know".

She said, "Just stand over there sir, the manager will be here in a minute".   A minute or two later, he was standing in front of me, after stopping to discuss it first with the check-out clerk.

He immediately said, "Hi, I'm the manager here. We really don't want any trouble here, and we're not racist either".

I was a little surprised by the forcefulness of his voice, as if I had accused him of racism, or at least, being insensitive.

I shook his hand and said "Well, I hope you understand, I'm not lodging a complaint or anything, I was just wondering if you were aware that in the South, many people see the Confederate Flag as something a lot like a burning cross.  It's like a constant warning or threat that they aren't welcome, and sometimes, that they're in danger."  I said, "It would be like coming home to your neighborhood everyday, and seeing signs on all your neighbor's houses that said "you're not welcome here".

He just looked at me like a real problem he'd like to be rid of, and said "Well, we'll take it under consideration, sir".  He abruptly walked away.

The next day, I went back to that store and the Confederate Flags were gone.

I'll always remember how, as a kid, I always wanted one of those confederate flags or bandanas.  I just thought they were cool looking, and had no idea of the hate and oppression they stood for.

I was surprised by the reactions of the people in the store, but I have come to the conclusion that they were no more aware of the pervasive existence of racism in America, and the danger and threat communicated by these little symbols that we thought were innocent fun. I never knew before I lived in Atlanta.

I think it's important for Americans to know how deep the racism and hatred goes.   It's important for Americans to understand that the boycotts underway by the NAACP against states that cling to the Confederate symbol is no small thing. 

It's a boycott designed to cause us all, no matter how much of a bother it may seem, to understand and reject what certain symbols stand for.  It is the same reason as for our rejection of the Nazi Swazsticka. 

It's the same reason we do not allow cross burnings, and why Supreme Court Justice Thomas has spoken out against any symbolic act or emblem which communicates a physical or social threat against people because of race or religion, or any other reason.

I support the boycotts, and the spirit of the boycotts of the Confederate Flag, and request that those who cling to that symbol make an honest appraisal about their commitment to America, their Pledge of Allegiance, the Constitution, and the values we claim as United States.

Like other candidates, I will need to go into areas of the country where there boycotts are in effect.  I simply ask that those who support the boycotts understand that I am with them. And they will know that by my commuication of their grievances, my contiued support to complete freedom in America, and a past that reveals my support for the end of racist undercurrents in our political and social systems.

To do otherwise would be "un-American" as per the defintion of what it actually means to be An American.

Recommended aditional reading: E.B. White, The Ring of Time, 1956

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(C) 2002,2003-2009 Charles Rehn Jr IV  All rights reserved