Confederate Flags Create Campus Divide

RobertLeeMonument

Lee Chapel’s statue of Robert E. Lee asleep on the battlefield.

Though the Confederate flag has been around for more than a century, it’s still one of the most divisive symbols in the United States. For some people, it represents Southern heritage, history, and pride; for many others, it’s a reminder of a time when institutional slavery was tolerated—even celebrated.

The conflict between those opposing views took center stage in April at Washington and Lee University, where a group of black law students, known as the Committee, demanded that the school remove the Confederate flags from the auditorium of Lee Chapel. On July 8, Washington and Lee promised to move the flags from the auditorium to the museum portion of the chapel. Last week, The Spectator, which calls itself “the conservative newsmagazine of Washington and Lee University,” took a pulse of the community’s response. The verdict? This issue is far from resolved.

“Unfortunately, the confederate flag is steeped in the blood of slavery,” says Halimah Najieb-Locke, national chair of the National Black Law Students Association (NBLSA) and a student at the George Washington University Law School. To some, the flags are now just flags, but Najieb-Locke contends that “ignoring the past and saying everything is okay and we’re singing Kumbaya is problematic.”

The Spectator’s survey showed that many members of the Washington and Lee community don’t share Najieb-Locke’s views. The publication interviewed 433 undergraduates and 433 alumni, and about 51% of each group disagreed with the removal of the flags from the auditorium. “[Ruscio’s] recent decision is another sad step in the effort to change the university’s ethos and identity,” one commenter wrote. “Fortunately, I have other educational institutions that respect my heritage, active student participation in daily life, and upholding the honor code. The school has lost my financial support.”

Still, if the commenter is white—and, frankly, there’s a 99% chance that he is—he can count on having his heritage respected by default almost anywhere in the United States. Black students and staff can’t say the same. In almost every educational institution, they’re the minority by far. At Washington and Lee, just 3.5% of the student body is black. At the law school, the number is slightly higher at 8%.

This isn’t the first time this year that black law students’ concerns about the law school environment have made national news. In February, a group of law students at the University of California, Los Angeles made a video to shed light on their experiences. “There are currently 33 black students in a student body of roughly 1,100,” one frame states. The students go on to describe feelings of loneliness and stress, often stemming from the need to prove that they belong. “I feel like I get here and I’m one of three black students in my section and I’m told that that’s impressive, and I get here, and I’m told that I’m one of 11 black students in my class, and that that’s impressive,” one student says plainly. “And I wasn’t impressed.”

The Committee at Washington and Lee felt that the Confederate flags were similarly isolating. “They assured me [Washington and Lee] was a welcoming environment where everyone sticks together as a community,” Dominik Taylor, a 3L and a member of the Committee, told the Washington Post. “Then I came here and felt ostracized and alienated.”