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?
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
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