Back in 1994, the public was warming up to the idea of relocating the Confederate flag from the State House dome to a monument on the grounds when the state Republican Party put a question on its primary ballot that deliberately left out that middle-ground option, forcing voters to choose between up or down, in-your-face or out-of-sight.
I was reminded of that false choice last week, after USA Today conducted a national poll about attitudes toward the Confederate flag. Normally, I wouldn’t care about this, because it’s a purely South Carolina matter. It doesn’t matter what people in Wisconsin or California or anywhere else think about the flag, no matter which side you’re on. But this poll demonstrates a central misperception about this debate that’s worth talking about.
The headlines said the country was evenly divided on support for the Confederate flag.
In fact, though, the poll didn’t actually ask a question that would tell us what the country supports. Like the GOP primary question years ago, the poll artificially divided the issue into two extremes. It asked respondents to decide whether the flag “is a racist symbol and should be removed from state flags and other official locations” or “is representative of Southern history and heritage and is not racist.”
Those extreme positions are not the only positions. As more and more South Carolinians understand, there’s a middle-ground option It is: The flag is about heritage, but it is deeply hurtful to others, so I don’t think it should be flown on government property.
My own completely unscientific conclusion is that the middle option very likely would poll close to 50 percent in South Carolina today.
This shift has occurred as a direct result of the grace of the people of Emanuel A.M.E. Church. This has touched nearly everyone in our state, and has opened our hearts to the deep pain that the flag causes many of our fellow citizens.
Yes, there are people in our state who insist that to remove the flag is to spit on the grave of their ancestors. And there are people in our state who insist that anyone who has warm feelings about the flag is a racist who might as well have burned crosses on front lawns and owned slaves.
But they are a distinct minority, these people who refuse to extend grace to those hurt by the flag or those who love the flag but realize it is too hurtful to remain. The people I hear from most tell touching stories about their love for their ancestors or some notion of “Southern heritage” or acknowledge that others are motivated by such touching stories. And both groups are ready to retire the flag.
Of course, in refusing to accommodate such people, pollsters are much like our politicians and TV talking heads. They are determined to divide the world into polar opposite views.
Yet on issue after issue, most of us fit into the “none of the above” category. But the more we are told that the extremes are our only options, the more we are willing to give in and pick one. And that will be the undoing of our nation.
On the flag or any issue, we make progress – and our politicians serve the public – when we stand firm and say we will not be boxed in to one of these extremes.
By all appearances, that is what the majority of South Carolinians have been trying to do for nearly four weeks. It is what most of our legislators are trying to do this very week. It is what extremists on both sides of the issue are working to stop us from doing. We will not let them succeed this time.
Cindi Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.