Rebels Without a Clue: Neo-Confederacy and the Ironies of White Supremacy

Tim Wise


Southerners are famous for wishful thinking: in fact, you could say it’s

something of a regional pastime. This should come as no surprise given our

interminable heat in the summer which leaves nearly all wishing for rain to cool

things down, and yet nearly none satisfied with the results of their entreaty.


also fits our history as the nucleus of the nation’s centuries-long affair with

white supremacy: one that heightened the desire for freedom on the part of the

oppressed, as well as the opposite wish on the part of the oppressors-to cling

to their advantages as long as possible. Hoping, often against hope, has long

been the name of our game. Thus, it was apt that I should read the following in

my local paper:


Carolina Governor Jim Hodges signed legislation yesterday to remove the

Confederate flag from the statehouse dome, saying it was time the state ended

years of racial divisions the banner has caused.’Today, the descendants of

slaves and the descendants of confederate soldiers join together in the spirit

of mutual respect,’ the Democratic governor said.’This debate is over.."


hyperbole goes, this is first rate. And like other fervent desires expressed by

decent Southerners throughout the years, it’s also remarkable for its absurdity,

and Governor Hodges knows it. The debate is far from over, and how could it be

otherwise, seeing as how the flag has merely been removed from the capitol dome,

only to be hoisted on a 30-foot flagpole at a monument to dead Confederates on

the grounds of that same capitol. That this is roughly equivalent to the German

Parliament flying a swastika above the Bundestag only to remove it and continue

its display at a monument to fallen SS would be obvious to all white

southerners–as it is to most blacks–had we not long ago begun lying to

ourselves about our history in such a way as to render this kind of comparison

incomprehensible. Black Holocaust? What Black Holocaust?


know some look upon the confederate flag debates engulfing our region as a

purely provincial affair, having no importance for the nation as a whole. And

yet, I would suggest that in many ways this struggle stands as a metaphor for

the larger national denial over the legacy of racial oppression. Much as

neo-confederates exclaim "racist symbol, what racist symbol?" so too

do their white non-Southern contemporaries shout "racism, what

racism?" whenever the broader subject comes up.


to the extent there are chapters of the Anglo-supremacist League of the South in

California, New York, Pennsylvania, the Midwest and throughout the Pacific

Northwest, and to the extent there are effusive monuments to Confederate war

dead in places as decidedly non-Southern as Helena, Montana, I think it fair to

say the flag–and its implications–are not merely the problem of me and mine.


is this simply a historical debate. In fact, among honest historians there is no

debate: the Confederacy was first and foremost about the ownership of other

human beings, and the notion of white superiority. Period. To wit, Alexander

Stephens, the Vice-President of the Confederacy who explained: "Our

government’s foundation and cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the

Negro is not equal to the white man," and who said slavery was "the

immediate cause of the rupture and our present revolution." Or as Robert

Smith, one of the framers of the Confederate Constitution noted: "We have

dissolved the late Union chiefly because of the Negro quarrel."


because of Northern tariffs–almost all of which were eliminated by the time of

secession–and not because of a zest for "independence" (which they

sought to deny to over 40% of their population), nor "state’s rights"

(which they were willing to trample in order to extend slavery into non-slaving

territories like Kansas and Texas), but "the Negro quarrel," which

was, after all, a property dispute among thieves, seeking to continue their

usage of stolen goods.


says the Southern partisan–and this is the part that makes the dispute most

interesting–"most whites didn’t own slaves:" a true statement, and

yet, one that hardly strengthens the cause, historical or contemporary, for

which they fight. For the poverty of most white southerners at the time of

secession, and the fact that most didn’t have a direct economic stake in

maintaining the slave system, makes these same folks’ fealty to Jeff Davis and

Robert E. Lee all the more bizarre. After all, the Confederate leaders were

clear as to why they were fighting the war: to maintain their property interests

in human chattel. And why would piss-poor whites fight for the right of others

to own a type of property: especially when the property in question could be

forced to work for free, thereby undercutting, by definition, the wages they as

paid labor would have required as a condition of their own employment?


about it.


this is where the debate becomes decidedly national in its implications. For the

one thing the neo-confederate resurgence does is demonstrate the degree to which

whites have been tricked into accepting the relative privileges of white

supremacy, even as the consequences in absolute terms have been disastrous for

most of us. Just as it was poor, landless whites who fought and died in the rich

man’s civil war–since slaveowners with twenty slaves or more could avoid

service–so too, has white supremacy always been about elevating the relative

over the absolute: making those of European descent content to have more than

"them," no matter how little they may actually have.


so Southern workers, more so than elsewhere resisted unionization, with the Klan

leading the charge against the labor movement at a time when it was growing

dramatically. And why? First, because unions would have tended to level out

wages for workers, black and white, and this would place blacks on too equal a

footing for the likes of the segregated south. And secondly, because the unions

were seen as "communist," and communists supported

"race-mixing," and all manner of "mongrelization." So we

accepted shittier wages, benefits, and work conditions, all to stay one step

ahead of those whose presence on the bottom was the only thing to give us a

sense of worth: the psychological wage of whiteness, as DuBois put it.


towns in the South even shut down their high schools–thereby keeping whites

undereducated–just to resist federal desegregation orders; and Southern

lawmakers fought most militantly to limit social service and income support

programs for poor folks (of all colors) because they feared that too generous a

welfare state would reduce the incentive of blacks to sell labor to whites for



we are still living with the legacy of our racial shortsightedness today.

Southern workers are half as likely as others to be covered by a union contract,

contributing to a multitude of problems: among them, the fact that employees

here are considerably less likely to have private health insurance and our

children are 20% less likely to have health insurance at all; or that workers

earn far less than those elsewhere, even after adjusting for cost of living

differentials, and that poverty rates are 15% higher than the national average;

or that working conditions are often less safe, contributing to the fact that

southern workers miss twice as many work days annually due to disability as the

national average. These persistent realities have a historical predicate: the

willingness on the part of most white southerners to accept less, so long as

there were some required to do even worse than they.


in town this morning I saw a half-dozen confederate-themed bumper stickers: all

on beat up cars or trucks, and not a one on a BMW or a Lexus, despite the fact

that it was the Lexus drivers of their day who needed and wanted secession, and

who whipped the poor into war frenzy on behalf of "their way of life."

My favorite reads: "If I had known this would happen, I’d have picked my

own cotton."


course, the government this young man defends with what I’m sure he considers a

quite hilarious display, is one that never would have allowed him to pick the

cotton, precisely because doing so would have made him too aware of the

difference between himself and the elite for whom he was toiling: and that was a

knowledge the planter class had to deny to white workers at all costs. So he

would have been hired to "oversee" the cotton-pickers, given a taste

of authority and power just sufficient enough to make him blind to the fact that

his boss was picking his pocket too. Still is.


the flag may come down from the capitol in Columbia; but it continues flying in

the occupied territory of far too many Southern minds: and the cost we pay for

such indulgence is enormous. It is the heritage of suckers, and the legacy of

fools. Look away, look away, look away, Dixieland.



Wise is a Nashville-based activist, writer, and educator. He can be reached at

[email protected]





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