Governor Baker’s initial failure to condemn the Confederate flag on Thursday, as the nation reeled from a horrendous racist attack in South Carolina, qualifies as a stunning lapse of judgment. Baker quickly apologized, but the damage is done.
The question, posed by interviewer Jim Braude on WGBH, was not difficult: did Baker think that Southern states should still fly the Confederate flag at their capitols? Braude might as well have asked Baker if he thought the Salem Witch Trials got a bad rap. The only appropriate answer was no. Yet Baker dodged, saying “South Carolinians can make their own call,” and that flying the flag was matter of “tradition, or something like that.”
Within a few hours, the governor issued a strong apology. “I abhor the symbolism and the history of that flag as much as anybody,” he told the Globe. But to have uttered those words to Braude in the first place shows either an incredible lack of historical understanding, or that the Republican governor is more prone to accepting his party’s worst impulses on state’s rights and racial politics than he’s let on previously.
There is no legitimate defense of flying the Confederate banner. While obviously every American has a free-speech right to fly whatever flag they want, there should be no obfuscation about what flying that one symbolizes. The central purpose of the Confederate cause was to keep millions of Americans in chains. Flying that flag today has nothing to do with honoring the sacrifice of Confederate soldiers, no matter how many times apologists say so. Does anyone imagine that the accused shooter, Dylann Roof, chose to put a Confederate flag on his car because of an interest in laying wreaths at Civil War cemeteries?
The particular way Baker chose to duck the question was also troubling. Citing “tradition” and state’s rights evokes the Republican Party’s worst tendencies on race. There can be legitimate debates about the limits of federal power. But mouthing the state’s rights argument in the context of the Confederate flag question echoes the way some GOP politicians used “states rights” and “heritage” as coded appeals to white voters. It also ignores history: gains in civil rights have been achieved in this country through federal action that often ran counter to the wishes of individual states.
Baker does not speak for Massachusetts; the 10,000 Massachusetts soldiers who died in the Civil War already have that covered. And while he and all politicians deserve to be judged first on their actions, some words cross lines.