When Even NASCAR Won’t Defend the Confederate Flag…

Those of us who are obsessed with politics often fall prey to paying too much attention to what politicians do, and too little attention to what is happening around us culturally. In terms of the Confederate flag debate, that means paying a lot of attention to what Southern governors like Nikki Haley say and do, and not enough to what more influential icons and institutions do.

On that front, the fact that even NASCAR has condemned the Confederate battle flag is pretty definitive that the debate is for all intents and purposes over:

“As we continue to mourn the tragic loss of life last week in Charleston, we join our nation’s embrace of those impacted,’’ the statement read. “NASCAR supports the position that South Carolina governor Nikki Haley took on the Confederate flag on Monday.’’

“As our industry works collectively to ensure that all fans are welcome at our races, NASCAR will continue our long-standing policy to disallow the use of the Confederate flag symbol in any official NASCAR capacity,’’ the statement read. “While NASCAR recognizes that freedom of expression is an inherent right of all citizens, we will continue to strive for an inclusive environment at our event.’’

It’s not just that NASCAR is synonymous with good old boys and Southern cultural machismo. It’s also that NASCAR in many ways is facing the same problem as the Republican Party: it depends on a shrinking, increasingly isolated demographic for its fan base, and desperately needs to broaden its appeal beyond just Southern white men. That includes having more minority drivers and race car owners.

In that context, the statements by former NBA star Brad Dougherty, the only African-American racecar owner in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series, are telling:

“I’m a different egg or a different bird, I’m a Southern kid,’’ said Daugherty, who wore No. 43 during his basketball career in honor of his racing hero, Richard Petty. “But to walk into the racetrack and there’s only a few that you walk into and see that Confederate flag — it does make my skin crawl. Even though I do my best to not acknowledge it or to pay any attention to it, it’s there and it bothers me because of what it represents….”

It’s so unfortunate that it took nine lives there at the AME church to really get this debate heated up enough that there’s serious questions about whether the flag should be flown over the state capitol,’’ Daugherty said. “I find that a little bit appalling and even absurd. The old heritage vs. hate thing, in my mind, is ridiculous because that flag to any African-American person does not represent any type of heritage. It 100 percent represents hate.’’

That it does. Nikki Haley knows it. NASCAR knows it. And we’re at a point in this country where it’s not just appalling and unacceptable, but it’s too damaging even to organizations like NASCAR and the Republican Party to tolerate it anymore even though they depend on a large number of bigots for their fan base and support.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.