I’ve always had the ultimate white privilege: I was born a Northern white male. I lived in the most segregated metropolitan area in the country, but my great-great grandfather fought for the right side in the Civil War. I don’t know whether my relative felt a moral obligation to fight slavery or just to fight for his country. Moving to Jacksonville, Florida, I want to understand the debate over Confederate statues in public places, but I can only really see it from my own privileged perspective, which means I can see why they are a hindrance to improving race relations, whether or not they represent more than that to some people.
When I visited South Carolina as a ten year-old, I can remember staying at a Days Inn that had portraits of Confederate Generals on the wall in the restaurant. I recall saying to my family, “They lost. Get over it.” My daughter, at the same age, said the exact same thing when we saw a pickup truck driving around with a huge Confederate flag in our new hometown.
My wife and I, realizing we’re here to stay (and not returning to Wisconsin after a vacation), tried to explain why it’s more complicated than that. Something about family and pride.
But it’s also about power and intimidation.
Florida was once a safe haven for escaped slaves. The Spanish allowed them to be free if they converted to Catholicism. Then it became a state, a slave state, with 44% of the population being enslaved, owned by 34% of the free population. So, basically, if you’re a white person with a family history going back to the Civil War in Florida, then there’s a 1 in 3 chance your family owned at least one slave. That does take a bit of the family pride or states’ rights argument out of the equation. The average for the entire South of free whites owning slaves was 32%. Therefore, morally speaking, you could compare the American South at the outbreak of the Civil War to Germany in 1932, when 33% of the population supported Hitler. Of course, most people would argue that genocide is much worse than slavery, but it’s kind of like the capital punishment debate--would you rather be imprisoned for life or get death? Slavery WAS imprisonment for life.
So, morally, slavery was wrong, and it was seen as the reason for leaving the Union. However, and you’re going to love this, Karl Marx was the only person to identify that Southern states did not actually vote to secede, except in Arkansas. So Marx said only 300,000 citizens of 9 million wanted to leave the Union.
But Marx had his own agenda. He wanted to use the non-vote as proof of the rich and powerful had taken the vote away from the masses. But wait. The only state that DID vote was Arkansas, and only 20% of whites in Arkansas owned slaves--the LOWEST percentage in the South. Arkansans approved the move to consider secession 65% to 35%. So, let’s extrapolate. If three times the slave-holding population supported potential secession in Arkansas, then what percent would it be in the rest of the South? 96%? Probably not. I’m just playing with numbers and making assumptions, like Karl Marx.
Regardless of the arguments in Washington, one of the compelling arguments in Arkansas (and probably the rest of the South) was that Northerners thought slavery was a sin while Southerners did not. Is that what this is all still about, perhaps? In Germany, you can get prosecuted for actions that call attention to the country’s worst sin. The people have repented, and they honestly try to cover it up as much as possible. They don’t drive around in their BMWs with Nazi flags flying. Most Germans (and even most card-carrying Nazis) were just regular people who got caught up in a big sin and big lie.
OK, in the North we have de facto segregation, even more than in the South. And we displaced or dispatched of American Indians just as immorally as anywhere else. We had our sins over the years, and there’s probably still some going on. You might argue that a statue of Custer or Carnegie or Grant or Thomas Jefferson has just as many sins associated with it as one of Robert E. Lee. But I’m not going to agree. Those figures, flawed as they are, don’t have the added element of being part of a continued, sustained movement to intimidate others, even if only a fraction of 30% of the Southern whites see it this way. That’s because it’s not about YOUR intent as a white person who is proud of your family. It’s because of your neighbor with the pickup and a flag that tells others to back off. It’s because of all those in the North who make jokes at your expense. It’s because of the minorities who see it as you wishing it was 1850 all over again. Really, audience interpretation should make you want to move on.
Think of it this way. You flying that flag, naming high schools after Civil War Generals, and probably some of the statues (from the perspective of those who were enslaved) would be like the federal government having come to the South after the war and erecting statues of Sherman and making you attend Hooker High. I assume that would have taken victory too far. It would have been degrading. Losing a war isn’t degrading, but how you portray that history to others can certainly make you look foolish and vicious at the same time.
In all honesty, there is nothing that can personally bother me about statues, flags, street or school names, or whatever in the South. Like I said earlier, I am of privilege when it comes to my racial and historically moral background. I’ll snicker at flags, roll my eyes at school names, and maybe scoff at statues. I’m sure I might even shake my head if ever I visit Stone Mountain, but when a Northerner does that, it’s a ridicule response, not fear. I’m not worried about some kind of “the South will rise again” mantra. What would that even mean? No one is going to tell me to go home if I don’t like it because I’m white. Very tan, but still white. If there’s a vote or a debate, I won’t even weigh in on it. I’ve watched Birth of a Nation and read books with racially-charged language, and I don’t agree that everything that’s offensive to anyone needs to be thrown away. I know we could deconstruct America from Columbus to the Founding Fathers to Obama and find faults. In the end, it will likely have to be those who profess to have Southern Pride to figure out how they want that portrayed to the rest of the world and for posterity.