The day after Trump won, I was greeted by the red bloom of several freshly strung American flags. It was the first time the flag made me feel afraid
By Chase Quinn | A writer based in Charleston, South Carolina | July 4, 2017
The morning after the US election, drowsy from a late night watching the votes come in, still in a state of disbelief at the results, I carefully laced up my red Nikes for a run and considered my options.
Since moving from New York City to a predominantly white suburb of North Charleston, South Carolina, my daily exercise routine had become an unexpected source of anxiety. This was, after all, the same city where Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, had been shot in the back in broad daylight after a routine traffic stop only a few months prior.
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As a black man post-election, I felt even less certain of what threats I might face outside my front door. Should I slow my stride so as not to startle the white woman up ahead? Should I give up my space on the sidewalk to the oncoming white man and his dog? Does my outfit identify me clearly enough as a recreational jogger and not a criminal?
No sooner had I rounded the corner of the main road into a neighboring development than I was greeted by the red bloom of several freshly strung American flags. I wasn’t sure how long they’d been there, but it couldn’t have been more than a day. I would have seen them. I knew my loop; I could have even told you which cul de sacs to avoid, because the homeowners sometimes left their dog off-leash.
As a 30-year-old American, this wasn’t the first time I’d encountered the stars and stripes. If anything, I’d been overexposed. But this was the first time the flag had made me feel afraid.
Flags – big and small – sprung from mailboxes, billowing grandly from steel flagpoles planted absurdly on narrow lawns: on 9 November 2016, what had been anodyne patriotism felt suddenly hostile: storebought symbols of a “new” America.
It was the America that Donald Trump had referred to throughout his election campaign, engaged in the kind of dog whistle politics that had led the likes of the Klu Klux Klan to endorse him (if you were really listening, “make America great again” meant no more than “make America white again”) and that, more frighteningly, had gotten him elected.
And as criticism of the Trump administration’s racist, Islamophobic and isolationist policies mounted, the profusion of flags only seemed to deepen. Was it possible that as a result of the election and the social pressure in recent years to lower the Confederate flag that some of America’s most hackneyed bigotries had found a second life, passing as American nationalism and flying free under the socially acceptable guise of the American flag?
It’s important to note the longstanding relationship between the American and Confederate flags, and to point out that South Carolina was one of the last states in the union to lower the Southern Cross at the statehouse. It’s also important to acknowledge that this concession was only made after nine black people were shot to death by a self-proclaimed white supremacist at Mother Emmanuel AME church in Charleston on 17 June 2015.
The connections between these seemingly unrelated events are more easily drawn when you know the history. Contrary to popular belief – and despite what depictions like Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) might inspire – the reverence for the American flag as we know it today did not exist until the civil war.
Before that, as Marc Leepson explains in Flag: An American Autobiography, it was “not customary for private individuals to fly the American flag”. At the time of Washington’s crossing, it didn’t even exist as we recognize it today.
Only after the outbreak of war over the institution of slavery and the emergence of the Confederate’s stars and bars did Americans in the north come to celebrate the stars and stripes as a sacred symbol of unity, freedom and patriotism.
After the civil war, the flag would only continue to gain prominence as a national symbol, solidified by milestones like the adoption of the Pledge of Allegiance, the development of Flag Code and the commemoration of Flag Day, which all contribute to the kind of unbridled passion for the American flag we see on display on the Fourth of July.
Admittedly, I don’t know the meaning that the American flag holds for each individual household. Far from co-signing a white supremacist agenda, maybe some raise the flag simply because, to borrow from David Foster Wallace, it seems like “at a certain point of density of flags you’re making more of a statement if you don’t have one”.
Along those lines, maybe some, namely immigrant Americans and members of the international community, compelled by the current administration’s xenophobic “America First” policy and living in fear of deportation, wave the flag as a necessary form of misdirection. Don’t look at me – I love America. No doubt others still are simply proud military veterans, and I want to be clear that this is not meant to diminish their sacrifice. For some people, it’s just what you do.
What I do know is that racism is a shape shifter. Where there was once slavery, for instance, we then had Jim Crow, and segregation to take its place.
When that struggle was over it was replaced by the “war on drugs”, which, as Michelle Alexander expertly argues in her book The New Jim Crow, ultimately served as a tool for reinforcing the very same entrenched systems of racial oppression. For that reason it’s critical that we remain vigilant and interrogate the ways in which symbols of oppression we thought were abolished can be reinscribed in new ways.
A recent report by BuzzFeed on how the mainstreaming of misogyny, religious intolerance, and racial exclusion under Trump is emboldening school bullies, offers some good insight on that point and into how the flag, post-Trump, might be operating among younger generations as a symbol of white supremacy rather than a unifying force.
In one incident, a young black girl was surrounded by a group of white boys wearing Trump T-shirts singing the Star Spangled Banner, originally a poem written as a tribute to the American flag in 1814 by Francis Scott Key. They replaced the last line, “and the home of the brave” with the phrase “and the home of the slaves”.
In another incident, on Election Day, a group of students in Silverton, Oregon, gathered at their high school holding Trump signs and waving American flags as they taunted passing Latino students with threats of deportation.
On a recent trip to New York City, thinking about the enclaves of flag-waving homes across the country, I decided to make my way to my favorite part of the city, just off of Central Park at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue – the intersection of several New York institutions including Bloomingdale’s, the Plaza hotel and the Paris theater.
A few blocks away there’s also Trump Tower, another New York City landmark as well as the home of the current president, and the place where until recently his wife and youngest child still resided.
Call it research. Call it a pilgrimage. I hoped to find something there that might suggest what the legacy of the American flag, a banner so many Americans proudly displayed after his election, meant to our commander-in-chief.
Emerging from the foot traffic on Fifth Avenue, I scanned the exterior of the building and quietly slipped inside looking over the brash, gilt walls for a sign, any sign. There was nothing – not a single flag in sight.
Chase Quinn is a writer based in Charleston, South Carolina. He previously worked for the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York developing cultural advocacy tools and events on a range of human rights issues.