Political leadership needed on Confederate flag came from the private sector

Many prominent politicians waited for political cover before taking a stand on the Confederate flag. They got it from Walmart, Sears, and Amazon.

The Confederate flag near the South Carolina State House in Columbia.
The Confederate flag near the South Carolina State House in Columbia.

The past few years have not been America’s best in terms of race relations. From Trayvon Martin’s death in late 2012 at the hands of George Zimmerman to the recent unrest in Baltimore, a number of incidents have taken place that divided Americans along racial lines.

And no more heartbreaking incident has occurred than the shooting death of nine members of a historic, African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, at Bible study. The accused shooter, Dylann Roof, is widely reported to have unabashed white-supremacist views.

Earlier this week, President Obama himself said the country is not "cured" of racism, using language that people are not accustomed to hearing from the country’s leader to make his point. Unfortunately, that fact is far too obvious to most Americans.  

The massacre hurled one of the country’s most divisive symbols, the Confederate battle flag, into the spotlight once again after pundits and protesters alike demanded the banner be removed from South Carolina’s State House.

The flag is historically significant, of course, but it’s also horribly offensive to many people, especially black Americans. It shouldn’t be flying anywhere near where a state legislature sits.

Strictly speaking in terms of politics, the flag issue has greater implications for the Republican Party, due to its stronghold in the South. Most of its presidential candidates took a pass on the hot-button issue, including Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio, who each shrugged off the question with non-answers. Not exactly profiles in courage.

That’s why it was a breath of fresh air when former Republican standard bearer Mitt Romney called for the flag’s removal last weekend. To his credit, Romney has held that stance for years. Of course, he’s also not running in an early presidential primary in South Carolina this time around.

Credit also goes to South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House grounds at a press conference. She gets symbolism, surrounding herself with a diverse group of leaders and lawmakers from both parties at the event.

Whether the flag ultimately comes down or not is up to legislators. The process is much more streamlined for private companies, and to their credit, some major corporations acted quickly. Walmart, based far south of the Mason-Dixon Line in Bentonville, Arkansas, said it would pull items with the Confederate flag, as did Sears. Amazon and eBay took products with the emblem off their virtual shelves.

That’s a smart move by a national retailer on many levels. It’s also simply the right thing to do. Yet the decision also demonstrates the long-term view corporations have versus the 2016-focused gaze of candidates running for president.

Companies understand the country’s changing demographics and growing acceptance of once-taboo social issues like marriage equality. And they’re beholden to shareholders and customers, not voter blocs or fundraisers, which allows them to take an extended view. (It’s worth noting that communications at Amazon and Walmart are led by smart politicos, as well).

The Republicans should take note: future presidential elections will hinge more on North Carolina, Virginia, and maybe even Georgia than the familiar Rust Belt battlegrounds of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Long story short, the Southern Strategy isn’t much of one anymore. 

Consumers also want the companies they shop from to take a stand, whether on hot-button issues such as the Confederate flag, gay marriage, or raising workers’ wages. More than half of respondents say brands should stick up for their own political values, according to a 2014 study from Global Strategy Group, up significantly from previous polls.

One quote in particular stuck out from Haley’s Monday press conference: "This flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state." While she may have been speaking about ideology, she could have also been talking about demographics.

Corporations know this better than anyone. The country is becoming more diverse and more open-minded on many topics. If the politicians won’t lead on controversial issues, companies will – and they should. 

Frank Washkuch is news editor at PRWeek.

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