Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Complicity, racism, and the legacy of the Confederacy

In reaction to the massacre in Charleston, SC, people are taking a new look at the Confederate battle flag.

What do you think, when you see it?  I remember visiting San Antonio TX on a professional trip, and seeing a pickup drive by with  a huge Confederate flag flying off a pole in the bed, and I thought, "they don't like my kind here," my kind being liberal, academic, lesbian. I knew I would be scared  to meet the  men driving the truck because I instantly associated the flag with white conservatives and anti-gay, anti-black, anti-women values. 

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes compellingly in the Atlantic,
That the Confederate flag is the symbol of of white supremacists is evidenced by the very words of those who birthed it:
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth...
and stirringly concludes,
Take down the flag. Take it down now.

Put it in a museum. Inscribe beneath it the years 1861-2015. Move forward. Abandon this charlatanism. Drive out this cult of death and chains. Save your lovely souls. Move forward. Do it now.
Well, this demand has been made before,  but now there's support from an unexpected quarter.  Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention agrees with Coates (a pigs-flying kind of event):
The cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire. White Christians, let’s listen to our African-American brothers and sisters. Let’s care not just about our own history, but also about our shared history with them. In Christ, we were slaves in Egypt—and as part of the body of Christ we were all slaves too in Mississippi. Let’s watch our hearts, pray for wisdom, work for justice, love our neighbors. Let’s take down that flag.
And yesterday, the governor and senators of South Carolina agreed and called for the flag's removal from the grounds of the State Capitol. Meanwhile, Walmart announced it would remove flag-themed merchandise from its stores.

But let us not delude ourselves into thinking that removing this potent symbol will cure what ails us.  Paul Krugman writes in the NY Times
I’m sorry to say this, but the racial divide is still a defining feature of our political economy, the reason America is unique among advanced nations in its harsh treatment of the less fortunate and its willingness to tolerate unnecessary suffering among its citizens.

 He goes on to cite the sobering scholarship that supports this statement, and concludes that while things are better, we aren't there yet:
[A] history of slavery is a strong predictor of everything from gun control (or rather its absence), to low minimum wages and hostility to unions, to tax policy....Every once in a while you hear a chorus of voices declaring that race is no longer a problem in America. That’s wishful thinking; we are still haunted by our nation’s original sin.
Slavery is the root of our long battle with racism.

And let's not pretend we aren't all in some ways complicit.  Here in San Diego, our Spring Diocesan newsletter addressed issues of race and reconciliation (before the recent shootings), and the Bishop and the Editor received what they describe as "angry and vitriolic" letters in response.  Now, the newsletter isn't particularly strident, and in fact as I re-read the articles knowing the response they elicited, I was extremely surprised at how mild they are. And yet apparently many people felt enough offended by what was expressed to write angry letters.  Our Bishop shepherded the Diocese through The Gay Issue successfully (so that it's no longer an issue here), so one might think that Episcopalians in Dio San Diego are all in the same place. So it's quite a surprise to realize that our self-satisfied "enlightened values" here aren't so enlightened after all.  I wonder what response the Bishop will get to his latest call,
My sense is that nothing is going to change until we get rid of the guns and we actually pay the price, as a nation, for what we have done to generations of African-Americans from the days of slavery until today. The wasteland we have created calls for a new Marshall Plan to transform the lives of our brothers and sisters. It is time. There are no excuses. The next time we recite our baptismal covenant and say the words, "to respect the dignity of every human being," race relations and reconciliation are what we should be thinking about.
You go, Bishop Mathes!  But you might want to have some asbestos gloves to handle your mail after this one.


8thday said...

A couple of years ago I took a ‘bucket list’ trip to North Carolina to see the Olmsted designed landscapes at Biltmore. I rented a car in Raleigh and drove the 4 hours to Asheville. I was shocked at the number of confederate flags I saw on stickers and license plate holders, in addition to many blatantly racist bumper stickers. I am pretty sure that if any of the cars were on the roads where I live, those drivers would have been “educated” very quickly.

But now I wonder if southern folks are so used to seeing these things in their everyday life that they just don’t see them anymore. Much like I don’t see the moulding in my house that needs painting, or the peeling wallpaper. I walk by it every day and just don’t notice. When someone points it out, I am surprised that I haven’t noticed it and embarrassed that it was like that for everyone to see, for years.

I have known people from the south who would never consider themselves racist, or any other “ist” and yet say and do things that I, and most people where I live, would find deeply offensive. Generally, if I point it out, they are surprised and embarrassed, and vow to be more sensitive. Occasionally I am told that I am too sensitive and get de-friended. (Cultural privilege runs very deep and apparently must be defended)

I am very hopeful that this latest focus on the confederate flag will make southern folks really notice it and understand what the symbol says to others. It seems like that is the current reaction. Although I, too, am very doubtful that removing the flag will do much to change the ingrained culture. Especially after reading this shocking blurb from the NYTimes this morning:

“Since Sept.11, 2001, nearly twice as many people in the US have been killed by white supremacists, anti-government fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims.”

We have a very long way to go.

JCF said...

I remember how shocked I was when I moved to (north of the Mason-Dixon Line: barely!) Central Pennsylvania in the mid-90s. Not only were the "Stars & Bars" a frequent sight on cars (and pick-ups) in the area, at the county fair, two t-shirts being sold there made a STRONG impression. The *less* offensive one had the Stars&Bars, w/ the surrounding phrase "It's a White Thing: You Wouldn't Understand." But the other? It showed an illustration of MLK, w/ super-imposed rifle cross-hairs over him. The words were "Our Dream Came True!"

Kyrie eleison.