White Southerners say that the "Southern Cross" is a symbol not of racism and slavery but of regional heritage. Most of them don't remember a time when the Southern Cross had not been part of their state flags. But recently a bunch of liberals, Northerners, Californians, and blacks began carping about the flags. One by one, state flags have dropped the Southern Cross, and states have stopped flying the Confederate battle flag with the Southern Cross on it. Georgia just voted for a new flag without the Southern Cross. The white Southerners see their identity under attack.
What most white Southerners don't remember, because most of them weren't born at the time, was when the Southern Cross was being added to state flags across the South. The "Negroes" were getting uppity, and the Southern whites wanted to make sure everyone knew that they were still on the side of Jim Crow. That was the 1950s and 60s.
Since that time, racism has fallen on hard times. People have lost a lot of respect for it. Whites in the South, seeing that a purely racist message would get some resistance, have taught their kids the that "Southern Cross" stood for states' rights and Southern heritage, and the young Southerners naturally believed them.
Meanwhile, not even most blacks remember Southern states adopting the Southern Cross. But they know what it stands for, and they don't like it.
So is the Southern Cross a racist symbol or a symbol of regional pride? To some people, including to the original legislators that stuck it on the flags, it was and is a racist symbol. But in the honest hearts of others, it's a symbol of regional pride, one that they want to protect not out of racism but out of their sense of identity. So what is the Southern Cross "really"?
Richard Rorty's answer is that this is an inefficient question. A better question is, "What's to be done about the state flags that have the Southern Cross on them?" Asking about something's essence isn't as useful as asking what's to be done about it.
In this case, there's no correct answer to the question about the flags' "true nature." It's one thing to some people and something else to others, and to most of the people in the world, it's nothing at all.
What's to be done about it? The egalitarians in each state that still flies the Southern Cross should vote it into history. If a majority of voters in Mississippi or wherever aren't ready to vote that symbol off their flags, then I'm glad it's there as a reminder to the rest of us of who it is we're sharing this republic with.
state flag of Mississippi