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Commentary: A dialogue on race and a Confederate flag

By Tom Roos, Alexandria, MN

Headlines from the Star Tribune in recent weeks: "Violence in Charlottesville exposes nation's division." "Minnesota hate groups lurking in the shadows." The response from numerous politicians and social commentators is a call for dialogue on race in this country. Dialogue on race. Hmmm...

I pull the car over to the curb and put it in park 100 feet short of my destination — a residence that I happened to drive by the week before. There it was, the Confederate flag, flying high and proud. Its tattered edges and faded colors suggest that it's been proudly displayed for some time. I pause, take a deep breath and pull into the driveway.

As I get out of the car and approach the residence, I see a big man with a shaved head, a short beard wrapped around his chin, who is holding a knife as he is working on some cabinets. A row of bushes creates a visual barrier from the road, making me feel very vulnerable as an uninvited guest, approaching a big man with a knife, on his property, to tell him that I have an issue with him and his flag.

"Excuse me," I say to announce my presence. The big man with a knife looks up. "I have a question for you." The big man looks confused, and I perceive him to be a little annoyed at his uninvited guest. "I'm not looking for trouble and if you ask me to leave, I'll leave. But I'm wondering — what's your motivation for flying that Confederate flag?"

The big man with a knife looks up at the flag and actually flashes a smile that makes me feel a little at ease. He explains that he likes history and he collects a lot of confederate stuff. He explains he used to live in the South and sees it as part of his heritage.

I am ready for my rebuttal. "I understand the history and the heritage. However, to many people, that flag is a symbol of hate, racism and oppression. Some people are getting the message from that flag that attitudes of hate, racism, and oppression are acceptable in our society." I take a deep breath feeling proud that I'm able to get that out without my nerves causing me to stumble over my words.

"Well," replies the big man with a knife, "That's not what it's about for me. It's history, It's part of my heritage. I'm not a man of hate. I don't hate anybody." About that time, a toddler came out from the garage. "This is my grandkid," the big man proudly announces. He explains how he and his wife have spent a lot of time with the toddler to help their daughter when she is working.

"I have some beautiful grandkids also." I pull out my phone and show him a picture of one of my wonderful grandkids — a 9-year-old girl, who is both beautiful and unmistakably bi-racial.

"Beautiful kid," he responds.

"That's for sure," I agree. "Here's the problem. When you fly a Confederate flag, I'm worried that kids like your grandson might grow up with attitudes of hate and racism towards kids like my grand daughter. Wouldn't that be a shame?"

"My grandson isn't learning anything about hate from me. That's not what I'm about," replies the big man.

"Well, I was watching videos of those guys waving confederate flags and giving Nazi salutes in Charlottesville. I'm pretty sure they weren't feeling love in their hearts," I rebut sarcastically, which makes the big man smile.

We continue to visit for about 15 minutes. We listen and respond to each other's views without interruption. We end the conversation the way we started — with very different opinions. Before I depart, we shake hands. I thank him for taking the time to visit with me. I tell him if I see him out and about I would buy him a cup of coffee and perhaps we could visit a bit more. If I get to visit with the big man in public and he is no longer holding a knife, I might even be bold enough to ask that he consider taking down the Confederate flag. I think I know what his response will be, but I hope I have the courage to continue the dialogue anyways.