Tea Party’s use of Confederate flag is indefensible

Heath Haussamen

Heath Haussamen

If the Las Cruces Tea Party wants to be taken more seriously, it needs to consider why so many have viewed its float as offensive and demonstrate a greater sensitivity for their feelings and opinions.

Political correctness can certainly be taken too far. But ignoring it completely can be offensive and shut down dialogue.

At best, the Tea Party in Las Cruces is guilty of such an offensive with its recent inclusion of the Confederate flag in its Fourth of July parade float.

In our society, the flag has two competing meanings. One is about states’ rights, Southern heritage and independence; the other is about slavery and racism.

Including the flag in displays might be appropriate in certain circumstances if it’s presented in the proper context. The Tea Party says it was attempting to do just that – create a float that recognized New Mexico’s history and the flags that flew over it.

The technical problems with their attempt have already been discussed widely, so I’ll mention them only quickly here: The Confederate flag probably never flew over New Mexico; if any flag of the Confederacy ever did, as local historian (and occasional NMPolitics.net contributor) Christopher Schurtz pointed out, it was probably the Stars and Bars.

Second, the Tea Party failed to include Spanish or Mexican flags on its float. Both have had a much greater and more lasting impact in New Mexico than the Stars and Bars. Any attempt to recognize this state’s history that fails to include those aspects falls far short.

Disregard for others’ opinions and feelings

But this isn’t the first time the Confederate flag has flown at a Tea Party event in Las Cruces. Stephen Jones documented another incident for the lefty blog Democracy for New Mexico in 2010.

And, as you can see in this screen shot that I took from the Las Cruces Tea Party’s website, the group has a photo of a black man – Al Sharpton – with the words “Socialist, Marxist, Maoist, Leninist, Communist” above it and, below the photo, the statement “In our midst! These vermin need to be checked at the door!”

I realize the Tea Party probably intended the use of “vermin” to refer to socialists, Marxists, etc. The image of Sharpton is actually an embedded video that, when you play it, shows a number of left-leaning people – some black, most white – talking about redistributing wealth to the poor.

But one has only to do a quick web search to find the racist underbelly of society that refers to black people as vermin. Those who call the Tea Party racist think it’s conveying exactly the message it wants to convey.


Maybe the Tea Party hasn’t thought about that, or maybe it’s simply disregarding the way some people might interpret the web page. I think it’s disregard for the opinions and feelings of others.

If I give the Tea Party the benefit of the doubt, the best-case scenario is that it has demonstrated the same disregard with its use of the Confederate flag.

‘Well, to hell with them’

Tom Cooper, the group’s treasurer, rejected the way some feel about the Tea Party using the flag in its float. The Albuquerque Journal quoted him as saying critics “need to wake up and get a life,” and, about those who view the flag as a symbol of racism, “Well, to hell with them.”

That’s an intentional and combative dismissal of the valid and understandable opinions and feelings of others.

I’ve been a defender of the Tea Party in the past. In this instance, I’ve written nothing for more than a week as I watched this controversy play out, considered various opinions and did my own research.

At the end of the day, I don’t think the Tea Party – in Las Cruces or elsewhere – is an overtly racist organization. But there are certainly some signs, including the continued display of the Confederate flag, of a culture whose people once fought and died to defend slavery.

So, in addition to an apparent heritage of racism and discrimination among some in the Tea Party, we also see a group that tends to be, at best, dense or uncaring about how its actions will be viewed by others.

In this instance, I find the Tea Party’s use of the flag – and its combative reaction since – indefensible. I understand why some see it as racist.

‘This nation truly is a wonderful melting pot’

Days ago, the Tea Party posted on its website (It’s no longer there, but here’s a screenshot) a letter that stated this:

“I think there is not a person of European descent in this community who feels slavery was a good idea, or that racism is something of value.

“The war, in fact, was one of State’s rights and economics. It is terrific that the Union won that war. If it had not, there would have been no United States to pull Europe’s tail out of the fire, twice. There would have been none of the great contributions of this nation’s people, of all races, have given to this world. This nation truly is a wonderful melting pot of the world’s people. And her measures welcome of people of all colors and races can stand as a testament of God’s good work and guidance.”

Great. Then start acting like you believe that. Regardless of whether you feel it’s fair, many people take offense at the use of the Confederate flag. People who oppose slavery and those who have supported slavery and discrimination have viewed the flag as a symbol of white supremacy. Do you really want to join the Klu Klux Klan in flying this flag in the 21st Century?

Using the flag to recognize a chapter in our history might – might – have been appropriate, if the Spanish and Mexican flags were also included and other steps were taken to ensure the Confederate flag was being recognized but not glorified. That would have demonstrated cultural sensitivity and presented a more accurate picture of New Mexico’s history.

Spanish and Mexican influences have had a lot more to do with the development of this state than the Confederacy.

Absent those flags, the Confederate flag should have been excluded.

Don’t be so insular

The combative stance the Tea Party has taken since the parade demonstrates why it’s still a fringe group, at least in Las Cruces. “To hell with them?” Not if you want to be taken seriously. The Tea Party must demonstrate a willingness to listen to the concerns of others, to try to understand others’ opinions and feelings and worldviews.

In other words, if you truly believe this nation is a “wonderful melting pot,” don’t be so insular.

Our society is built on the premise that we must work together to move forward. We can’t do that if we’re not trying to understand each other. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand the Tea Party, which is why I’ve ended up defending it from the bad rap I believe it often gets.

Not this time.

If the Tea Party wants to be taken more seriously, it needs to consider why so many have viewed its float as offensive and demonstrate a greater sensitivity for their feelings and opinions.

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27 thoughts on “Tea Party’s use of Confederate flag is indefensible

  1.         That’s a typically responsible journalistic response, Heath. That’s one of the reasons so many hold you in high esteem. Lots of pretty crazy stuff flying around at this point. The emotional pot is already at a high simmer and you are helping to keep only legit info posted and avoiding needlessly turning up the heat. Goood job.

  2.         That’s a typically responsible journalistic response, Heath. That’s one of the reasons so many hold you in high esteem. Lots of pretty crazy stuff flying around at this point. The emotional pot is already at a high simmer and you are helping to keep only legit info from needlessly turning up the heat. Goood job.

  3. FYI, I’ve removed a short thread of comments questioning whether there was a link between the tea party and today’s shooting in Aurora, Co. Without facts (and there are none, because there is apparently no link), I should not have published it to begin with.

  4. stever:
    I’m not denying massive mistakes in the history of my Party (involvement in Vietnam and lack of involvement in Rwanda spring readily to mind), but our biggest problem is and always has been one of messaging and acquiescence; We’re so desirous of looking like the reasonable side that listens to all ideas that we appear slow to respond when those ideas are completely insane.  And while the GOP may be primarily responsible for the near-complete lack of accomplishments of this Congress, Congressional Democrats have been less-than-effective at holding them responsible or even trying to break through the gridlock.  For once, it can’t be done with negotiation; we need to use a battering-ram this time.
    Ms. Beadle:
    One of my favorite things about the Tea Party is that they actual take a perverse pride in their complete lack of messaging and fidelity to fringe conspiracies – indeed, if they kept all of that out of public policy, I would delight in the entertainment value.  Unfortunately…

  5. I was at the Teague’s office with MoveOn demonstrating in support of the Affordable Care Act when the Tea Party showed up. I asked the guy with the Confederate flag why he was carrying it. He said it was a symbol for the citizen’s right to revolt against the government. Meanwhile another Tea Party member was distributing Constitution booklets! So which one is more representative of the local Tea Party?

  6. JCH I never said equally but these problems didn’t start in 2011.  Wae all know how things work now and how they worked in 2009 and 2010.  The fact is are you willing to accept any blame as I am telling you I am now? We have to start somewhere, as we can’t expect either side to go away.  

  7. stever:
    I’ve said this before, but saying that “both sides” are equally at fault for the fact that this is the least productive Congress in history is ludicrous; the Democratic Party is not responsible for congressional Republicans repeatedly introducing the same time-wasting circus bills that they know will go nowhere, nor are we responsible for the record-breaking number of filibusters launched by Senate Republicans, even against bills they support simply to score electoral points (by their own admission).  That’s rather like saying that all participants in an auto accident are equally at fault, simply because while one person may have run a red light, the other person was under no obligation to leave their house.

  8. JCH please don’t take offense, but realize the inability to get things done is driven by extremes on both sides.  I understand the need to stick with principles but too often things are just poilitics, not wanting to give the other side any credit or help. 

  9. stever:
    Sorry about that first, that was a simple typo.  While Bachmann is certainly not their “creation”, she is absolutely 100% their devotee (who do you think created the bizarre “Tea Party Caucus” in the House?).  As for the GOP being taken over by extremists, why would I like that?  First of all, I find your assumption that I insist they agree with me at all times patently offensive.  Secondly, why on Earth would I be happy with the fact that instead of an opposition party that disagrees with me about issues, I and my fellow Democrats are increasingly opposed by wild fact-free conspiracy theories, invented history, Constitutional ignorance, sophomoric personal assaults, and unwarranted vitriol? Rather than campaigning against people with ideas, we’re finding ourselves campaigning against people who know little about this country but insist that we are the ones lacking in patriotism, and are forced to watch with increasing perplexity as our society gives an actual mainstream voice to ideas that used to be confined to the very rear echelons of the tin-foil hat brigade.
    As I said on Twitter: Congratulations, Heath! If white-supremecists who are stuck in the Civil War are pissed at you, you’re doing something right.

  10. We do not need more Marc Rubios or Michelle Bachmans; indeed the whole party has been taken over by an agenda of historical- and mathematical-insanity.

    The name’s Marco.  Michelle Bachmann’s not a Tea Party creation, nor did they help her candicacy nor hurt Romney’s who they basically don’t like.  I suspect you’ve always thought the party had an insane agenda unless they crossed the aisle.  ‘Taken over” is a bit exxagerrated but if true, you should like that, right? 

  11. What about the idea that one can express themselves freely, without harassment by the press or a certain segment of society as they depict the event in their mind.
    Well, if by “in their mind” you mean “history”, then I see you point, but that still leaves one question; where in the Constitution is there a guarantee that people can express themselves in an ignorant and offensive manner, but other people can’t object?  The First Amendment – the one that guarantees the Tea Party the right to make increasingly-insane statements – also grants the press the right to report on their insanity.  What it does not grant them is freedom from criticism.  In what way is our exercise of the same exact right they enjoy infringing on their exercise of that right?
    As for the “states rights” argument you make, I suggest you read prior commentary; however to spare you the effort of scrolling down the page, I shall repeat myself here: Which states’ rights?  Every single state that seceded stated explicitly  stated that they were seceding because they wished to preserve slavery.  That’s why the states’ rights argument is ludicrous; it’s only half and explanation, because the specific right they were fighting for was the right to keep other human beings as property.  Additionally, since the Constitution does not allow for secession, saying that the flag in question was the flag of a nation is entirely incorrect; there never was a nation known as the “Confederate States of America”.  There was an illegitimate government made up of men committing an act of treason against the United States that used that name, but there is a reason that not a single sovereign nation legally recognized them as an independent power – they weren’t.
    In this case, however, you are doubly wrong (which, again, had you followed the conversation prior to this point, you would already know); the specific flag flown by the Tea Party of Las Cruces was never a “national flag”, not even of the Confederacy.  That flag was the flag of their armies, not their government, and since a) it wasn’t in use when the Confederacy invaded New Mexico, and b) the Confederacy never controlled New Mexico, putting it on that float while claiming that they were merely putting together a grouping of flags that flew over New Mexico was by definition offensive.  Not only did they display a flag of an invader – or, more accurately, the wrong flag of a failed invader – they did so in the absence of multiple flags that did fly over New Mexico.
    You should be appalled we’re still fighting the Civil War; of course, display of that flag is itself a belligerent act, so perhaps you are placing your ire in the wrong place.  If, “Symbols are only banners under which a cause or nation gather,” then perhaps people who claim to love America should stop inviting a gathering of the greatest act of treason in our history.
    I apologize in advance if you feel that I am infringing on your Constitutionally-guaranteed right to free expression by exercising my Constitutionally-guaranteed right to free expression and pointing out that you are completely wrong.  Just remember, while the First Amendment protects your right to ignorance, it does not protect you from being told that you’re being ignorant.
    Of course I have no fear of a reinstitution of slavery; I was not with that comment referring to history but to the Tea Party’s current agenda and activities.  We do not need more Marc Rubios or Michelle Bachmans; indeed the whole party has been taken over by an agenda of historical- and mathematical-insanity.

  12. I think we are way past ignoring them, and to do so at this point would be tantamount to irresponsible fantasizing.

    Perhaps for you and no doubt the media.  Irresponsible to ignore them?  We ignore kooks all the time, we ignore the fringe all the time.  Are they too mainstream for you?  Is it more than “racism” that’s in play?  Do you fear the flag indicates the rise of a pro slavery movement lurks in some homes in High Range or Mesilla Park, waiting for us to fall asleep?  Or do you worry that they will elect even more senators and congressmen like Sharron Angle or Christime O’Donnell or Joe Miller?  Or is it Marco Rubio, Nikki Haley or Mike Lee?

  13. As on many prior occasions Heath, I think you and many of the viewers of the parade placed too many connotations on the displaying of a singular flag on the Tea Party float. The idea that approaches the mind from the sight of a flag, pennant, or any other symbol of an era is what is in that persons mind. If they think of it as a symbol of slavery and an era of shame to this country, that is the problem of the beholder.
    What about the freedom of expression in this country? What about the idea that one can express themselves freely, without harassment by the press or a certain segment of society as they depict the event in their mind.
    If you look into any depiction of a symbol. you can find something that is degrading about it in some part of the past or history of the symbol. The Confederate flag does not represent slavery alone. It was a flag that was flown by a nation known as the Confederacy and a symbol of their beliefs as a whole, not just centered on slavery. The Confederacy also believed in states rights. Would you hold that up as a degrading part of the flag? If so, then the right of free expression goes out the window, because the belief in states rights still exists in all the 50 states and that would mean that any symbol attached to the United States would fall under the degrading agenda.
    We are a nation founded under God and many beliefs. This is what makes our nation strong. We need to get past the idea of putting tags on symbols and groups, just because they have different ideas. Having been born in a state that was apart of the Confederacy I am appalled that we still are fighting the Civil War to the extent that we place such importance on the displaying of a symbol.
    The Civil war was not about slavery alone, but about many issues. I agree with those who believe that the connotations people place on any symbol should get a life and forget about tags. We should remember that the Swastika has been used in many other past histories before the Nationalist Socialist Workers Party of Germany used it. Just as the cross of Jesus Christ was used before Christianity came into being. Symbols are only banners under which a cause or nation gather, be it good or bad.

  14. The theme of the 4th of July parade was the Centennial — 1912 to 2012 — and the Civil War and Confederate flags do not belong in this timeline.

  15. stever:
    “Should be,” yes, but our media obsesses over them, they have managed to elect dozens of congressmen, and their rhetoric has taken control of the Republican Party; I think we are way past ignoring them, and to do so at this point would be tantamount to irresponsible fantasizing.

  16. * So, neglecting for the moment, issues of racism and propriety, the selection of the flag demonstrates
    the Tea Party as an inept political movement. How could such a movement succeed displaying such a
    symbol when their chief criticism was racism.

    * Those of us fearful and angry at the capricious over-reach of the super majority but searching for a more philosophical
    foundation migrated to the Libertarian Party a while back anyway.

    * This gives Michael Hays ample columns to write about how all the tea partiers are racist and none of the occupiers are racist
    for months ( help us, years ) to come when he can’t think of anything else to write about. 

    * Has anyone else noticed the poster in the lower left hand of the image here?
    ( you may have to magnify to see it )


    It is either ironic or exonerating ( probably colored by your own pre-defined beliefs )  but I loved seeing the “The Blending Cultures”  poster with  
    representatives of our society, including a man who happens to be black, right in the middle of the discussion. 

  17. Back in the late 90’s I visited Stone Mountain outside of Atlanta, Georgia which is the South’s equivalent of Mt. Rushmore…etched on the face of the mountain is the largest bas relief sculpture in the world.  The sculputure depicts the three leaders of the Confederacy: Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. 

    Stone Mountain has a interpretive museum near the premises which gives a detailed timeline of the Civil War.  I was intrigued that nowhere within the museum was the Civil War ever referred to as the “Civil War”.  It was always referred to as “the War of Northern Aggression”.

  18. JCH  by virtue of the information you provided and is otherwise well known about them, they should be easy enough to ignore. 

  19. I checked out that Stormfront link.  The meaning of the flag is quite clearly White Supremest.
    I did not understand the pic of American flags with Revolutionary soldier armed with a modern automatic weapon standing over a crying Jewish man.  What the heck?  I presume it is anti-Semitic but, I still don’t understand it.  The pic creates cognitive dissonance in my mind.  None of the juxtaposed images are historically related or related in the least.
    All and all, the web-site was very sociopathic and scary.

  20. I learned before approval of the National Monument,  the racist-tinged Las Cruces Tea Party and the Mesilla Valley Tea Party  threatened the Las Cruces Mayor and City Council with a recall. No doubt they are mad about the Confederate flag controversy.  It is really time for residents to stand up to the bigotry of these groups.  They need to reform their ways. Enough is enough!
    Las Cruces has already been embarrassed nationwide  by the antics of these groups.

  21. stever:
    The Tea Party, is, in its own way, demonstrative of how the Civil War meant different things to the people fighting it than to the people leading it; the individual members of the movement are angry at this country’s direction, and – rather to my own irritation – the very people who pushed the policies they’re angry about got to them first and convinced them to vote against their own self-interest (this frankly demonstrates a colossal rhetorical failure on the part of my own party for not getting to them first).  Their understanding of public policy tends to be marginal at best and their ignorance of history is astounding, and the general irrationality and anger they willingly display does nothing to endear them to their fellow citizens, nor to diminish the view that they are a fringe group attracting other fringe elements.  However, their funding comes entirely from above – as do their ideas – from people with a completely different agenda (much as the Civil War may have been fought over slavery, but the individual soldiers certainly weren’t fighting for that goal); groups like Americans for Prosperity, American Crossroads, and the Clarion Fund pay for their websites, their buses to the nation’s Capitol, and often even their picket signs.  I would never call them well-oiled or professional, but they are organized, and while they present the appearance of a spontaneous rabble of citizens filled with righteous indignation, that image is entirely fabricated.
    It’s also worth noting that their very name is historically ludicrous; this is a group pushing policies of great benefit to mammoth corporations – some of whom have cornered their respective markets and none of whom need any political help – who named themselves after an incident in our history that was a specific protest against a corporate monopoly.
    I used to have a college professor who would say the same thing; He would start the lecture by asking what caused the Civil War, and as soon as he got the inevitable kid who insisted it was “states’ rights”, he would ask, “Ok.  Which specific states’ rights?” and following the equally-inevitable pause-of-perplexity, he would say, “The right to keep other people as slaves,” while literally bouncing laterally across the front of the room.

  22. The Tea Party IS a fringe group although many would like to view them as representing republicans and/or conservatives.  Mostly its just a bunch of nerdy political amatuers with a few hard core idealogues mixed in.  Of course what they aren’t is some well oiled political machine run by professional political consultants who know all the facts and never make mistakes.  Some have college degrees and know how to find links on the internet.  That’s been working out well.

  23.    Thanks for the well-written article, Heath. I have one point on which we may differ.
        I recently spent a week in South Carolina with our son and his family. We took the grandsons to Boone Hall Plantation which is a working plantation, privately owned. They give guided tours and presentations to the public. One of the points they made was the “states rights” as being the driving issue of the Civil War. I could see our son biting his tongue. As we walked away he chuckled to me and quipped, “States rights. Yeah. The first states right in every screed of the pre-Civil War period lists slavery as the right they wanted.”  Our son got his PhD in African American History from the University of Illinois-Chicago so I’m taking his word for it that the “states rights” claim is only half the truth that should be told.

  24. The T Party that is covered by main street media is NOT the same as the frustrated, angry, educated, and informed activist citizen who knows that he is being lied to and is tired of it. Go to a city council meeting or the state legislature or the public regulation commission and you will see the handful of activist citizens who are trying to make a difference. They are very few; and they are always shut down. The T party described in this article is NOT representative of the angry American who has drawn his line in the sand. It is a farce. They are only there to discredit true activists from engaging the system.  And the pressure continues to build.



  25. This is a well-thought out commentary on the Las Cruces Tea Party and the racist Confederate flag controversy . The flag  represents all the worst elements in America!  Sadly you even have  members of Stormfront, the white supremacist group, rallying around  the tea party and its display of the battle flag that was never used in the New Mexico territory.