After being contacted by CNN, Walmart, Sears and Kmart have all decided to drop all merchandise from their shops and online that bear the symbol of the confederate flag. As of Monday, CNN was able to find some items on their site:
"We never want to offend anyone with the products that we offer. We have taken steps to remove all items promoting the confederate flag from our assortment — whether in our stores or on our web site," said Walmart spokesman Brian Nick. "We have a process in place to help lead us to the right decisions when it comes to the merchandise we sell. Still, at times, items make their way into our assortment improperly — this is one of those instances."
They worked fast. As of Tuesday morning a search for "confederate flag" didn't offer anything with the familiar symbol, except for the state flag for Mississippi, which has it baked in.
Walmart and Sears are obviously empowered to decide for themselves what sort of merchandise they want to carry in their shops, and if they don't want to infuriate their customers with symbols of racism (or perhaps they are trying to draw in new customers by eliminating symbols of racism), more power to them.
But CNN takes it a little further. They contacted Amazon and eBay to see if they were going to eliminate Confederate flag merchandise from their site. They have not apparently responded. Both sites still offer Confederate flags for sale. But these are online marketplaces that really don't curate their offerings the way a "brand" like Walmart or Sears does. CNN notes that eBay has a policy against offensive items that "promote hatred or racial supremacy, including historic or current items."
If CNN had checked on the site further, maybe they would have discovered that eBay perhaps means this rule literally and does not include symbolic representations that we associate with hatred. It's easy to realize the limits rule means by typing the word "Nazi" into eBay's search engine. You'll immediately get a page full of coins of the Third Reich for collectors, most of which are emblazoned with a swastika. There are historical photos for sale of Nazis in uniform during the war. Clearly the rule doesn't mean what CNN thinks it means (or else somebody at eBay is asleep at the switch).
It's one thing to pressure a retailer to drop merchandise. It's another thing to pressure a service that connects individual buyers and sellers to each other. It changes the dynamic from "The places where I shop should maybe not be profiting off selling racist merchandise," to "People should not have or even want these things at all."
Obviously, eBay and Amazon can do whatever they please and make decisions based on pleasing customers. They don't have to permit Confederate flag merchandise to be sold through their services if doing so has the potential to harm their business model. But then there's always Craigslist! And if Cragislist won't allow it, people will find some other way to engage in trade. Confederate flag opponents must not make the mistake of confusing using their power as a consumer to pressure their favorite retailers into better behavior with trying to control trade between other people.
Judge them all you want, but attempting to stop individuals from engaging in trade over confederate symbols or memorabilia will not purge the symbols from American society. Instead it will breed resentment, backlashes, claims of censorship, and even more angry paranoia.
UPDATE: eBay has informed BuzzFeed in a statement that the will ban the sale of Confederate flags and items containing the image.
UPDATE II: Amazon has also declared they will drop Confederate flag-themed merchandise from its stores.