Symbols gain their significance not only by the historic setting into which they are first introduced, but also by popular usage over time. As a result, some symbols take on a wide variety of meanings depending upon the context in which they are used. Therefore, the symbols, by themselves, cannot convey a clear meaning unless accompanied with some explanation as to why it is being used, and what message they are meant to embody. For example, a bronze eagle perched atop a flag pole carried in procession might represent national pride in a 2nd century Roman legion, a Third Reich military parade or a local gathering of the Boy Scouts in your neighborhood. Symbols must have a context, or else their range of meanings is simply too vast to convey anything meaningful.
Another excellent example is the symbol of the Confederate Battle flag. Used during the Civil War as a battle flag for some Confederate states, it has particular historical significance. Some may use it to symbolize, in a panoramic way, the entire "War Between the States," appreciating the forming and shaping this conflict accomplished for the still relatively young nation. Other historical enthusiasts and societies use it to symbolize a very specific aspect of that history related to military legacies or southern family settlements dating clear back to the antebellum period. On the other hand, others may use it to symbolize legitimate and contemporary political discussions concerning state's rights versus federal authority on a given issue. It can represent something as generic as one's geographic pride in being from "The South," to something as light-heated as the famed "General Lee" car in television's "The Dukes of Hazard."
And, of course, it can negatively be used to symbolize the scourge of slavery that blights American history. Fueling this usage have been the occasional racist groups that still exists to this day. Such ideological "cancers" use the above symbol to represent, if not "white supremacy," at least a version of "white separatism." The thought is that since people of various races tend to congregate together anyway, and organically form their own cultural dynamics... why fight it? It encourages an "us versus them" mentality that thinks nothing of making broad, sweeping statements about "the other group."
Such mouth pieces for this line of thinking represent the worst type of ignorance. It could very well be that they have had an experience in their sphere of life that they then project upon the rest of a group, and upon society. Regardless of what life experience has led them to espouse their view, the effect is the same: racism. They give themselves over to the intellectual laziness of assuming that those of a specific racial group all share a common trait (seldom is this trait a positive one). Yet the racist does not stop to consider whether he has performed a reckless leap of logic; he simply assumes, unquestioningly, that broad generalities (either told to him by another racist, or that he extrapolated from his own limited experience) can be safely applied to entire people groups that share a common color or accent that differs from his own.
In a previous article (What do you Mean when you Say, "Equal?"), it was discussed that ultimately, the ignorance of finding groups to be inferior is not merely a wrong-headed evil, it's a theological heresy. Because the blessed doctrine of "universal depravity" reminds us that we are all crooked deep down and in need of the saving work of Jesus Christ, to suggest that the negative effects of "the fall" are more concentrated in another group than one's own is to find one's self at odds with this doctrine. The doctrine of "universal depravity" is supplanted with the heresy of "concentrated depravity," supposing that depravity is more "concentrated" in another race or gender than mine.
But the racist defends, "It's not that I think 'that other race' is wholly inferior to mine. I just think there exists a conflict between 'that other race' and mine." Again, the "racism" is evident in the unbridled willingness to accept that ALL of "the other race" are in conflict with ALL of mine. The generalizations abound with unflinching force and comfort. This green man and that blue man have a quarrel in a specific part of the country; ergo... green men and blue men everywhere are in conflict. Rubbish!
Again, the racist defends, "But the green man and the blue man SAID that they were fighting because of their colors." He accepts without criticism whether the "green and blue men" in question are the best examples of humanity with which to be formulating sociological assumptions. No, he imbibes the explanation that such "conflict" must be everywhere because he already accepts the premise that "blues" and "greens" just don't mix well. It helps him organize his view of people, make sense of the world and manage the input of various experiences he has. He may not wear a hood, tattoo a swastika on his shoulder or "jump into" a Neo-Nazi gang, but he has adopted the racist paradigm nonetheless. He thinks in groups, in terms of race, and fully expects "the other race" to be in conflict with his.
It remains lamentable that the Confederate Battle flag is seen so easily by some as a symbol of racism. Journals and memoirs from Confederate Army generals are replete with musings on the blight of slavery, and the desire to see it eradicated - "just as soon as this conflict with the invading Federal Army from the North is won." But such sentiments are seldom the headline. Instead, the meaning often ascribed to it is one of racism that was formalized in the institution of slavery of the 19th century. And present-day racists, in their various forms, that use it to symbolize there own message aren't helping.