Ed Note: I originally wrote this post May 20th, 2017. For some reason, I never published it. I’m publishing it now because, while some of the topics are dated, the overarching topic holds.
This post is the first in a series I’m calling “Posts from the Dustbin: Long Reads Long Forgotten“. I hope you enjoy it.
May 19th 2017, the City of New Orleans took down the fourth statue commemorating the Civil War.
The removal came with the kind of public outcry that southerners have come to expect from a segment of the population…breathless cries of a loss of “heritage” for the “Lost Cause”.
Since I was a child growing up in the rural south, I’ve heard different stories about the Civil War. Some of my friend’s parents called it the “War of Northern Aggression”. Some romanticized it in some way as an honorable endeavor where the underdog lost. Others rejected this revisionist history, calling the Civl War what it was…a political play by wealthy landowners to keep their labor cheap at the expense of other people.
While the last shot in the Civil War may have been fired over 150 years ago, we are still fighting the Civil War. It has become a kind of Cold War, that persists in our society. The basic premises of the war, and the impetus for the war…the maintenance of cheap labor provided by a subjugated class of people for the benefit a wealthy “ownership class” has spread far beyond the borders of the old Confederacy.
The war may have ended over 150 years ago, but we’re still fighting it. And the ideas of the Old South are winning.
Civil War Facts
While people may express differing opinions about the Confederacy, or even the causes of the Civil War, there are some basic facts that those who offer a romantic re-imagining of history for the war intentionally ignore.
1. Secession was about maintaining slavery. It says so in the secession declarations of the first two states to leave the Union: Mississippi and South Carolina. While some seceding states didn’t specifically mention slavery, maintaining the political power that came with slavery (which I detail later) is equivalent to specifically stating support for the vile institution.
2. The Confederate States started the war, with the Battle of Ft. Sumter in April of 1861.
3. As with most wars, this one was about power and money, not necessarily in that order. The powers that be in the South wanted to keep their money. The powers that be in the north wanted to keep the money from exports from the Southern States. Slavery determined how much of that money stayed with the Southern Powers.
While there were anti-slavery elements in the north, the Union didn’t “start” the war to end slavery. The South started the war to maintain slavery, and the financial and societal benefits that whites enjoyed from that system.
In short, the only “Northern Aggression” involved in the beginning of the Secessionist movement, was the threat to the prevailing powers in the South…not the abolition of slavery, which didn’t happen until 1863…two years into the war.
Americans get this basic understanding of history wrong on a consistent basis. Part of this is because we’ve bought into a system that, in many ways, mimics the Confederacy. America, as it stands today, features a powerful “ownership class” that wishes primarily to maintain its power and financial strength over the will of a remaining “subjugated class” structure, whose tiers include a rainbow of people of all races and middle to lower economic classes.
The Confederacy is alive…and it is us.
But why have we allowed this structure to maintain and grow?
A Conversation With Joe
On Mother’s Day, Ellyn and I met an older white gentleman at Overton Park. For the purposes of this story, we’ll call him Joe.
Joe is in his mid to late-70’s…just a year or two older than my father. He grew up in Memphis. He lived through the Worker’s strike and desegregation. He saw the white flight brought on by bussing in the 1970’s and the hollowing out of the city core as a result.
Joe asked me what I thought about “What’s going on in New Orleans”, and, not knowing where he stood, I offered this response:
“I think its a good thing. There are lots of people who see these symbols as symbols of subjugation and hate. This is part of a healing process that should have begun decades ago.”
Joe challenged me with the typical “heritage” question, to which I replied,
“The only heritage of the old Confederacy is one of slavery. That was the stated purpose for secession. Americans have conveniently forgotten this.”
“Why do you think people forgot it?”, Joe asked.
“Because despite 150 years of Civil Rights gains, despite a war that ended before anyone you or I ever knew lived, Americans have denied the root causes of the Civil War, and the ongoing legacy of that war”, I replied.
“Here’s an example: In post World War II Germany, students were educated about the atrocities of Hitler and Nazism. It became a part of their collective consciousness. It wasn’t allowed to fade into obscurity or be twisted by those who would seek political gain from distortion.”
“Similarly, in post-Apartheid South Africa, there was an immediate effort to reconcile the history of Apartheid through the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Committee’.
“There was no such effort in the United States. Reconstruction was not about enlightening people, but holding back the formerly prevailing political and financial system that sought to start the war.”
“As soon as reconstruction ended, these folks came back into power. As a result, over the decades people have re-written history for their personal or political benefit. They have pushed this romanticized notion of the Confederacy to the point that it has spread far beyond the Mason-Dixon line. They say history is written by the winners, but in this case, it wasn’t. In this case, the people who lost the shooting war were allowed to write a history that served their political purposes.”
“We’re still fighting the Civil War…its just no longer a ‘shooting war’.”
Joe said that my perspective was interesting. He said he mostly agreed with me, but he had to think about it some more. He joked, “I might totally agree with you before sundown!”
We continued our conversation, before saying goodbye and continuing our Mother’s day festivities.
The Constitution Established White Supremacy
Of course, the Civil War wasn’t the beginning of a doctrine of White Supremacy. That began hundreds of years earlier with colonization, and was later ensconced in the very Constitution we hold so dear.
Despite the romanticized notions of the establishment of our nation, there is a simple truth that we have ignored: America was founded on the idea of White Supremacy…specifically, the supremacy of wealthy white landowners.
To deny this is to deny simple, verifiable facts.
The Three-Fifths Compromise gave Southern states more power in the House of Representatives, by counting a subjugated people, for the purposes of representation without allowing those same people any say in their representation.
This gave the Southern States an outsized presence in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College through the beginning of the Civil War.
The Three-Fifths Compromise is about white supremacy…pure and simple.
The United States never would have become a thing without this compromise.
From this compromise flowed disproportionate power to Southern States.
This power led to the maintenance of slavery as an institution, and the continued subjugation of black and native people through the policy of Manifest Destiny. The notion of ‘Manifest Destiny’ may not have been expressed before the mid-1800’s, but was most certainly in effect through early notions of American Exceptionalism and Romantic Nationalism.
All of these ideas persist today…encoded in our collective unconscious as normalcy and national pride despite the downsides that they maintain for both minorities and people who are not fortunate enough to be a part of the controlling “ownership class”.
Maintenance of the Social Hierarchy
As the nation matured, and support for the institution of slavery faded in the north, the south feared a diminished political power. The specter of new states coming into the Union as non-slaveholding meant that over time slaveholding states would lose political power in Congress and the Electoral College. This put their “peculiar institution” at risk. The diminishing of this disproportionate power was the primary argument for secession.
The end of that “peculiar institution” also put at risk a social hierarchy, where even the poorest white man was elevated above the most achieved black man.
The maintenance of that social hierarchy is why poor southern whites fought for their wealthy southern oligarchs.
Here’s a quote from a pamphlet authored by John Townsend in 1860, arguing for the maintenance of the southern social hierarchy to poor whites.
“It will be to the non-slaveholder, equally with the largest slaveholder, the obliteration of caste and the deprivation of important privileges,” he cautioned. “The color of the white man is now, in the South, a title of nobility in his relations as to the negro,” he reminded his readers. “In the Southern slaveholding States, where menial and degrading offices are turned over to be per formed exclusively by the Negro slave, the status and color of the black race becomes the badge of inferiority, and the poorest non-slaveholder may rejoice with the richest of his brethren of the white race, in the distinction of his color. He may be poor, it is true; but there is no point upon which he is so justly proud and sensitive as his privilege of caste; and there is nothing which he would resent with more fierce indignation than the attempt of the Abolitionist to emancipate the slaves and elevate the Negroes to an equality with himself and his family.” – via CivilWar.org
From this writing it is clear, the argument to maintain the social hierarchy in the south worked on poor whites. Under the oligarchical system that existed in the south, there was no upward mobility for nearly anyone. Poor whites were only better off because they weren’t black.
The foundations of this argument returned to the south after reconstruction. The terrorism of lynch mobs, state mandated curfews, Jim Crow laws, and Citizen’s Councils are all manifestations of this social hierarchy popping back up in the South.
All of these institutions are founded on the notions of white supremacy…even if not all of them involved specific violence to black Americans. The ideas of these institutions continue to exist in middle and working class whites, but not just in the South and not just toward black people.
The New White Supremacy
In the wake of the election of America’s first black President, a backlash of racism washed over the nation.
This backlash is founded on the continuing principle stated in the quote above…that even the poorest white should be held above the most accomplished black person.
But the foundations of this re-energized white supremacy were laid decades before Barack Obama took the oath of office. They were laid in the Jim Crow laws of the post-reconstruction south, and maintained through the fights of the desegregation era, the Civil Rights era, the Equal Rights Amendment effort and Roe vs. Wade.
All these efforts share a common enemy: a “ruling class” that seeks to maintain power by setting people of common resources and social standing against each other…for the maintenance of the social hierarchy.
This notion has endured…from the machinations of the Southern Strategy that began in the Nixon era, continuing through the deconstruction of affirmative action and cash welfare while engaging in deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy classes in the Regan era, and on to Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America…which was the proto-Tea Party Movement.
And while the letters next to the names of the politicians who support these policies may have changed over the decades, the basic philosophy that undergirds their call hasn’t.
All of these ideas and the people who support them are about one thing: maintaining white male supremacy.
Buying the Narrative of White Supremacy
Middle and working class whites have bought into this system because its part of the mythology of the foundation of our nation that we never came to terms with. They also still believe, somewhere in the back of their minds, the basic tenets of John Townsend’s 1860 screed…that even the poorest white person was better off, or in some cases “better” simply because they aren’t black.
We have never acknowledged that this nation wasn’t founded by a scrappy group of rebels…but a land ownership class, many of whom, had their entire fortunes wrapped up in the subjugation of someone…be they slaves, or poor whites.
We do not acknowledge, as a people, that our nation never would have existed but for an agreement among white men to give disproportionate political power to slave owners.
Our nation was founded on slavery by slave owners…period.
The 2008 and 2012 elections may have given some people hope that this foundational element of our nation has faded. But the 2016 election should remove all doubt about its power over our politics.
As a middle-class white man, I see it. But I’m not foolish enough to believe I can ever understand the impact. I know I can’t.
Ending White Supremacy in America
I’m not arrogant enough to believe I have the answers to end the social hierarchy of white supremacy in America.
I do know this: ending it requires white people to recognize it for what it is, and actively fight against it.
I know this because every movement, from the establishment of suffrage for women, to the civil rights gains of the 1960’s, has required the people who benefit most from the social hierarchy to acknowledge the benefits they receive from it, and actively work to elevate all those who have and are being harmed by it.
You must educate yourself.
You must work to elevate people who are being harmed.
And you also have to understand that, as a white person, you will and can never fully understand.
That means taking a back seat to the people who do understand. That means being an ally who listens rather than tells. That means your feelings may get hurt when you step out of that lane. It also means sucking it up when your feelings get hurt and remembering why you’re fighting.
To end white supremacy in America, we need white people to talk about the ways they’ve benefitted from the social hierarchy, possibly at the expense of others. We need to acknowledge the quiet and unsuspecting ways we have maintained that hierarchy.
We must admit that any station we have gained has been, at least partially, thanks to the power of white supremacy. That everything from the parents we were born to, to the schools we attended and the jobs we’ve been able to hold is at least partially due to the social hierarchy of white supremacy in America.
Doing anything less than that is to maintain the current social order.