The Ghost of Confederates Future

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.

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2 Responses to The Ghost of Confederates Future

  1. Jack says:

    Sam, my reply to you is long overdue, but I want to thank you for writing about racial injustice, a topic which tends to make Americans (and especially white Americans) uncomfortable. In preparation for the launch of my own blog, I’ve been wrestling with The Ghost of Nazis Past–there are, I think, some areas of overlap in how our country has treated minorities and how the Jews were treated in Nazi Germany and its territories. Of course, we never produced anything on the scale of the slaughter that the Nazis managed, but we did manage to enslave one race for nearly 90 years, and pushed another into the margins by involuntarily displacing them from their lands, making war against them, and denying them their rights. In spite of all we’ve done, we always try to portray the Bogey Man as being “out there”…either it’s those backwards guys in other countries who take away the rights of others (like the ISIS fighters in Syria), or it’s those guys in our own country who lived hundreds of years ago….they were the bad ones, they owned slaves, they denied women the right to vote, etc. Whether or not such righteous indignation is legitimate is another post for another day, but my point is that we never like to turn the pointing finger back at ourselves. In thinking about The Ghost of Nazis Past, the Milgram experiment came to mind. Milgram demonstrated that ordinary, everyday people are very likely to follow the orders of those in authority, even when they have every reason to believe that executing the orders will likely produce harm. Even in the absence of overt orders, law-abiding citizens generally go about their business, don’t stir up a lot of trouble, and don’t really do a lot to shake up the existing moral climate. The problem is that societal institutions and values remain grossly disordered precisely because good people say nothing and do nothing.

    As for me, I don’t know what the answer is. It definitely is a problem that a large percentage of Americans tend to look at these problems in a way that is too simplistic and that doesn’t take into account other points of view. For example, take the recurrent rage that people express on social media whenever rioting and looting take place. A person (usually white) will post a meme with a caption, like: “Those who riot and loot should lose all their government benefits: Share if you agree.” Ignoring what could be taken as implicit racism (the meme photo is almost always of African-American men), the other main problem with these memes is that the core moral truths that they present are absolutely banal. Even the vast majority of liberals would agree with them that looting and rioting are criminal actions…so whom are they trying to convince? And what is the point in even posting such memes? I suspect (though I hope I am wrong) that these memes proliferate because of a sense of smugness in the (mostly white) audience who shares them: “I grew up poor, I didn’t loot or riot like THOSE PEOPLE.” Of course, “those people” is often code for “black people,” though the speaker (if pressed) would likely say that he is speaking of people who loot in general, not black people specifically. But our African-American countrymen (and women) take offense at these memes, as they probably should. Memes like this may actually help fuel the angst that many black people in inner-city communities feel–it simply confirms their suspicions that white people are against them, that the system is completely rigged to their disadvantage, and that there isn’t any hope. With despair rampant, a few are pushed to the breaking point and engage in criminal actions, which further fuels the white smugness.

    One problem I notice is that conservatives often try to reduce every single social problem into personal accountability. Now, personal accountability is a good thing, but looking at the big picture and using your brain is also a good thing. Studying the factors which might cause people to riot and loot (racism, poverty, despair, a sense of not belonging in society, etc.), and then taking steps to address those factors, is not the same thing as saying that the rioters are not responsible for their own actions. Not by a long shot.

    I fear that the systemic racism we have in our country is so ingrained in our institutions, and in the psyches of those who have already reached the age of majority, that there are no quick solutions for the racial inequalities that we have in our countries. Social welfare programs might treat a few of the symptoms, but they don’t treat the underlying problems. The good news is that we can greatly reduce bias in the next generation by implementing anti-bias curricula in our schools (especially in elementary and preschool–most biases are learned early). We need to recruit members of minority groups–and especially African-American men–to teach preschool, kindergarten, and first grade…we need to expose kids, especially white, middle-class kids, to people whose skin color, customs, and beliefs are different from their own. In short, we need to break out of the “us vs. them” pattern that we seem to be stuck in. While it is a good first step for white people to acknowledge that black people still face injustices in our country, we must somehow move beyond simply confessing our sins, and leap into a new paradigm of reconciliation…one in which black people can be proud of their heritage, while no longer carrying the weight of oppression and shame that has so long (and so sadly) been associated with that heritage…a paradigm in which white people can acknowledge the sins of their forefathers–and the advantages that they may have unwittingly gained from those sins–without passing on either the baton of white guilt or the baton of white smugness to their children (That last sentence is probably run-on, and undoubtedly violates many tenets of the Beacon Handbook, but I’m too tired and too lazy to edit it. And anyway…I think it still makes the desired point).

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