The problem here is one of the interpretation of symbols. One of my Southern students insists that the flag does not represent racism or slavery to him; when pushed, he suggests that if it represents such things to other people that’s their problem. In this view, the interpretation of a symbol is purely a matter of personal preference and no one has the right to criticize anyone else’s interpretation. I am afraid that I cannot accept such perspectivism. Symbols have histories; and the world we live in is historical. Whatever I or anyone else might think about the flag, it is a matter of record that it was created to serve as the symbol of an institution whose members disagreed about many things but agreed about the moral and legal acceptability of slave-holding. It is also a matter of record that today’s racists and segregationists still make regular appeals to that flag as the symbol of their cause, though less often and less publicly now than when I was a boy (which may help to explain the difference between my attitude and that of some of my students). That still-living history cannot be erased by waving the magic wand of personal interpretive preference—which, by the way, is a strange magic wand for someone to wave who seeks to represent and defend a traditional way of life.
The idea, I take it, is that history can't just be washed away in a moment. If a symbol has value as part of a tradition, as history, than its meaning ceases to be the sort of thing that can be controlled. One cannot declare that the flag means something one day and something else the next. In the first place, it doesn't make sense because the meaning isn't centralized: no one exists who can say that, precisely because the meaning belongs not just to the people alive now, but to those who have gone before, whose opinions cannot be set aside. Second, it recapitulates the problem of legislation in Blackstone's common law: legislation which appears to re-write old legislation does not constitute a change, but is rather an exposition of what the law in fact was all along. But this is a fiction, and everyone recognizes it: the flag can't mean (only) some non-racist thing so long as there are people who understand it that way. Third, it requires subjectivizing the symbol: it's what it means to me that matters: but this should do for no one: it's what the symbol is that's important.