Editorial Note: I started writing this quite a long time ago, which will become obvious because some of the references I make will be to things that have happened in the past.
Over at National Review, Charles C. W. Cook points out that his fellow conservatives tend to have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to excessive use of force or the inappropriate use of lethal force by police officers. It’s a bit of a strange admission coming from the flagship conservative magazine in the U.S. Speaking of strange admissions…
TIME Magazine reports that Newt Gingrich, purportedly on the short list to be a Vice Presidential candidate alongside a soon-to-be Presidential candidate Donald Trump, said that white folks don’t understand being black in America and the additional discrimination and risk that entails. That’s certainly true in my experience, and I’ve never been black in America.
I just grew up in the same neighborhood as people who were, and it was obvious enough from that experience once I moved to a city that was overwhelmingly white and saw the difference. It is perhaps an irony that it wasn’t until I left the big-city South and moved to the Midwest that I heard the word “nigger” used casually in a derogatory way by a white person.
It’s not that there aren’t folks in the South who do that too, of course. There certainly are. Nonetheless, what I’ve noticed after venturing into the land of the Yankee Northerners is that they seem to be in general unaware of how very much like Southerners they are when it comes to racism. Except perhaps in the sense that Southerners are slightly more likely to be honest about racism (whether they see it as a good thing or a bad thing).
By and large, racism is seen as a matter of individual choice by both those in the South and in the North (rather than as an institutional or structural problem). This was pointed out very effectively in Emma Green’s article in The Atlantic about the Southern Baptist convention (which has its origins in upholding racism) making a continued push to include justice for racial minorities and immigrants an important part of its official stances both on paper and in practice.
Russell Moore, a critical figure within the Southern Baptist organization, has called for listening to our African-American brothers and sisters when they say they are experiencing a problem and having compassion for those penned up in detention centers at the U.S.-Mexico border. But his calls are not always greeted positively by other Southern Baptists, suggesting that racial tensions may not healed in the way that he would prefer.
There seems to be a contemporary pattern of a minority of white conservative political pundits, politicians, and high-profile religious leaders recognizing that we are facing the ghost of confederates future: an unwillingness to even listen to the concerns of those who claim that they are discriminated against unfairly, a reflexive dismissal of them because their political tribe is not our own, and a failure to consider that their values may be different because they face different problems.
This ghost is revealed to us by the prophets in the midst of the land of white conservative and religious men, themselves the descendants of the men whose ancestors were willing to exclude their fellow men from political and civic life and unwilling to face down the bigotry that kept them chained and treated as inferiors. Even when they did not approve of it personally, they may have thought it too risky to use their position and power to address it.
Will these men learn the lessons of the ghosts of confederates past? Will they learn the lessons of the ghosts of confederates present? Will they listen to the prophets in their midst who advise them that they are missing something important?
I don’t know the answer to that question, but I sincerely hope that I’m wrong about the ghosts of the Confederacy that will haunt the future, a future that won’t listen to black folks, a future that will dismiss their views, and a future that doesn’t see how their values are shaped by a history of oppression…a future that gets worse before it gets better.