NOTE from the author: In response to the recent tragedy in Virginia, I posted the following simple sentiment on social media:
For months, I’ve been watching in horror as authoritarians call people who disagree with them Nazis and advocate or at least threaten violence against them . Now, America openly has Nazis who not only advocate violence but also use it.
Never has the careful use of words mattered so much. Never has distinguishing those who wish to control others from those whom you dislike or disagree with been so important.
We can choose to line up on sides in this conflict, or we can choose to line up against this way of doing politics period.
The future of America depends on that, I’d say.
Peace to all of you.
Soon after posting that message, I made some minor edits to the following piece that I wrote after the Dylann Roof committed racially motivated murders two years ago, and sent it to one of my favorite outlets for publication – an outlet that had previously published all of the pieces I had sent them. They respectfully declined to post it, with the following message.
“I’ll have to reluctantly decline this one, not because of anything wrong with it, but just because of the ease with which people misconstrue and mischaracterize messages.”
While I understand and respect the editor’s concern (and asked them to sit on the piece for a month and then run it), I think that our fear of discussing race honestly when all hearts, minds and cameras are focused on it, is one of the (many) fundamental reasons why this madness and pain in our country continues.
Therefore, I am posting it here, while allowing that others may disagree with my decision to do so.
Also – just in case it needs to be said – nothing in the following article implies that the problem addressed in this piece is the singular cause of America’s recent tragedy. That would be absurd.
To Embrace Each Other, We Must Embrace Our History
Another tragedy reminds us that 150 years after the end of the civil war, the symbols of history still have the power to change our future.
And given the significant, albeit partial, role of a statute of a southern general in the events that played out in Virginia last week, it reminds us that America still has a minority that it has failed to integrate, with fatal consequences.
Although some of the members of this minority are unusually educated and privileged outliers, we rarely see them with their hands on the levers of power; we rarely see them in control of large companies or wherever else there is great wealth; their neighborhoods tend to be poorer than those of the rest of the nation; when its men walk down the street wearing fashions and symbols that reflect their sub-culture, others look down upon them; it is a minority that is even viewed as less intelligent than the rest of America, more prone to violence and simplistic politics.
I am referring, of course, to white Southerners.
That’s not what you were expecting, was it?
It’s not offered as a justification of neo-Nazism – there is none – but of the context in which a statute can have, indirectly, the power to kill. It speaks not to what extremists do or how they do it, but the toxic substrate on which they feed.
Ending America’s deep racial wound that reopens and (literally) bleeds all too frequently even hundreds of years after it was inflicted, depends on our understanding the lack of integration of not only those who have been historically victimized – black Americans – but also of those who are accused of providing the cultural context for the ongoing victimization – white Southerners
I was not born American, but became one last year, and when I did so, America’s history became mine too. Like the hearts of all other Americans, my heart is breaking at the recent event in Charlottesville – a deranged attack on the values and people of my nation.
In an episode of the Daily Show, Jon Stewart wryly expounded on the tragedy that played out in Charleston after the racially murders there by Dylann Roof just two years ago.
“We have to peer once again into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other in the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal but we pretend doesn’t exist… I’m confident, though, that by acknowledging it, by staring into that and seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do jack sh*t.”
Jon rightly pointed out that if any attack could ever properly be called a racist attack, it was the murder on Thursday of nine church-goers in Charleston. As he explained, the church where the murders were committed is a symbol to the black community not least because of the attacks that have been perpetrated there before. And the murderer wears a coat on which are sown flags of two of the worst white supremacist apartheid regimes that the world has ever seen.
But then Jon said something that jarred with me: “We are stepped in that culture in this country and we refuse to recognize it, and I cannot believe how hard people are working to discount it. In South Carolina, the roads that black people drive on are named for confederate generals, who fought to keep black people from being able to drive freely on that road.” Jon called this state of affairs “insanity” and “racial wallpaper”, and he said of it, “you cannot allow that”.
He is right to draw attention to that wallpaper: if I were black, and my surname was the name of the man who enslaved one of my ancestors, I might have a negative reaction to such cultural fabric and the insensitivity it implies. I’d be justified in feeling insulted by being told I do not understand what it really means. I’d be right in thinking that a little humility and grace should be enough to stop people insisting on flying it higher over the state I and my enslaved ancestors called home.
But “disallowing it” is very different from understanding why it is there – and unless we do that, nothing will ultimately change. Indeed, telling people they can’t have or mustn’t do something usually makes them want to have it or do it even more. The fundamental question is not how will the flag be removed from Southern flagpoles the statues of southern generals get taken down from public spaces – but how these and similar symbols stop being causal agents of pain – anyone’s pain of any kind.
I don’t believe that most Southerners who vote for the confederate flag to fly above their buildings or statues of Southern generals to be left where they are want to see the deaths of African Americans. Yet, it is surely easy enough to see how those things exacerbate a very troubled situation. Why, then, do so many basically-decent people insist that they remain?
In my native land of England, roads are named for people good and bad, and history is checkered – as is every nation’s history. England chopped off the head of a king, Charles I, for his tyranny, but now nevertheless recognizes that same king’s importance with a statue in the capital city. We revere, by popular poll, Winston Churchill, who saved our nation, as the greatest Briton, while admitting that he didn’t get everything right, was an imperialist and, especially early in his career, made catastrophic decisions that resulted in the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of people. We recognize the evil done by Brits who enslaved and the good done by Brits who ended slavery, but we don’t think that members of either group are defined just by their view on that issue. We acknowledge that in many places the British empire was about dominating other cultures and people – something we entirely reject today – and yet we appreciate the greatness of many the achievements of the men who were involved in building it – a greatness which, if the names of places and monuments in India, for example, are anything to go by, even the “victims” of that dominance can still appreciate.
In short, a mature society realizes that the present identity of all of its members depends on every single bit of its history – the bits of which today we are ashamed as well as the bits of which we are proud. Publicly recognizing the importance of all of those actions, events and decisions, and even celebrating them as part of who we are, does not mean that we today agree with the values that justified them at the time. But if we ignore them or, worse, bury them, we can neither unite as one people nor truly learn from our mistakes.
It is human nature to seek an identity that connects us to our peers (tribe, nation) and our place. And such identity is always found in shared history. You can’t throw out history without atomizing and ultimately demeaning the individual.
American Southerners, like all people everywhere, have a deep yearning to own their history, in which their identity lies, and find ways to take pride in it. The South has a rich history that is so much more than slavery. But the rest of the United States, of which the South is politically a part, seems not to be able to integrate and celebrate that history. Rather, the history of the South is, to America as a whole, a kind of anti-history – a “foil” to the great and good path that America chose. In other words, America’s identity not only fails to include the South: it almost depends on a historical rejection of it. One might say that Yankee America – the winners of the Civil War – has engaged the need to end the segregation of the historic racial “other” – African Americans – but not the need to end the segregation of a cultural and moral “other” – the formerly guilty South.
As someone who’s been welcomed to the United States as an immigrant (for now more than a decade), I’ve learned much more by osmosis about its civil rights history and black leaders than ever I’ve learned about the South. Indeed, almost all I’ve been exposed to about the South is what was wrong with it – all the bad it ever did. Where in the larger American story is the celebration of the South as more than slavery – as an American sub-culture that has its own beautiful stories of complexity, love, heroism and ambition, which all societies everywhere are built on.
I notice that in modern America, it’s not generally acceptable for well-meaning, educated (mostly white) Americans to generalize negatively about African Americans, but it is acceptable to jokingly put down Southerners as in some way morally, politically or culturally backward – often with the implication that their moral, political or cultural backwardness is a kind of watered-down version of whatever allowed slavery to happen in the first place.
Put another way, we appreciate that African Americans as a group were historically “otherized” by our nation, and we admit our national and moral responsibility to address the consequences of that fact; but when it comes to the white South, “otherization” is still acceptable. We can’t call it racism because the North and South are not racially different, but it is still chauvinism. And it is as old as the Civil War and therefore very, very deep. Moreover, it’s harder to shift because it is sustained by a moral judgment against the people who are “otherized”. Whereas an African American may suffer “otherization” today because of an injustice against his people in the past, the Southerner suffers it today but because of something supposedly still blameworthy about his culture.
We may not have fully accepted and integrated our African American communities, but most of us at least realize the need for it, and the essential justice of doing so. But in a way, 150 years after the civil war, the nation is even less able to integrate the white South – because its people are still seen as heirs to ancestors with blood on their hands, and so America-at-large demands the impossible of America-in-part: that today’s Southerners repudiate or bury a past that a) they had no part in making and b) will always be their past, and therefore part of their identity, whether they deny it or not.
One side wants to take down a statue because the man it represents was not good – he harmed the racial community with which they identify. The other side wants it to remain because the man it represents was important – he was a hugely important part of building the geographic and cultural community with which they identify.
If our nation ignores (at best) or simplistically rejects (at worst) the rich history of a part of itself, then how can those who identify with that part of the nation find an identity within that nation? Simply, they cannot. Rather, they will do what all conquered cultures do the world over: they will grab on to the symbols of what was taken from them when they became subjugated.
In 1861, the otherization of the South by the North was literal and obvious, coming in the form of bayonets and artillery. Most Americans regard that as timely and justified. But to the extent that Southerners are today held as backward, they are still being otherized. And like all minorities that are otherized for extended periods, they have come to own that otherization (just as many African Americans have come to own the derogatory labels that whites used to use against them but today may not), celebrating the symbols of their otherness as the only thing they have.
It is simply human nature.
So perhaps the flying of confederate flags and the standing of military statues does not cause racism or do harm per se. The naming of streets after men who fought for slavery is not racist or harmful per se. These things do not ultimately cause division. Rather, it is the prevailing, divided, cultural context that causes people to experience those symbols and names as still threatening. Jon Stewart has a point when he says that we would be better off when the racial wallpaper is taken down, but to tear it down and keep it down, we must recognize that it is more effect than cause.
The deep wound of racism in America will not be gone when the confederate flag can only be found in history books and all the military statues of the losing side have been taken down, but when all Americans, black and white alike, northerners and southerners too, can appreciate all the old flags and dead generals as symbols and makers of a present identity, in the safe knowledge that we are united as Americans, beyond racism, against violence, and against condescension justified by skin color, the acts of our ancestors or the degree to which we hold those ancestors and their actions as formative of our identity.
Since I arrived in the United States 13 years ago, it’s been very obvious to me that Americans are acutely aware of the evils of racial segregation. Martin Luther King is one important historical figure that, fortunately, American kids do know about. And I don’t know any American who seriously thinks that King was wrong, or that the civil rights movement was a lot of hot air about nothing. And while many of us disagree about the best way to respond to the historical inequities that play out economically and socially today in our minority communities, most Americans admit they are there.
Folks disagree about the morality of racially-based affirmative action, for example, but at least we all know why we’re discussing it. In fact we are so sensitive to our history of racial victimization, there are even certain words that may not be said by people of one color but may be said by people of another: in other words, we are so aware of the racial issue that we’ve changed the tacit rules of our language on its account. I can turn on CNN, MSNBC or even (yes, it’s true) Fox News, any day and hear about the disadvantages suffered by various African American communities. Our nation has even designated a month for official celebration of this ethnic and cultural thread of American history.
No; the discrimination that is responsible for the dangerous cultural context that results in a repeating cycle of violence is a more subtle discrimination – a discrimination that dare not speak its name – a moral and cultural discrimination against a guilty white South.
As victors of the Civil War, perhaps the North has still not decided whether they want a peace like the one after World War I, when Germany was held (at Versailles) as entirely blameworthy and morally bankrupt, or like the one after World War II, Germany was quickly invited into the community of nations, from which the whole world has benefited.
Likewise, America’s racial problem hinges on whether America insists on holding its Southern self as still blameworthy and “other” or whether it invites it in, without qualification, just as the world today recognizes Germany as so much more than the Kaiser and Nazism, and treats it as a member of the community of nations with equal moral and cultural standing as the rest.
Does the rest of America really see the South as its moral and cultural equal, and does it really admit that the history of the South is American history, to be celebrated as part of the American story? There is nothing to celebrate in slavery, but the South is more than its racial history. It is up to the rest of the nation to integrate the South by recognizing it as more than being on the wrong side of a historic issue – by talking about the South positively in relation to anything else at all.
All communities need a historical identity. If the rest of America can’t assimilate the South into the American identity by integrating Southern history into its own as completely and honestly as it integrates the Civil Rights movement, the Founders, the heroes of the North, the Patriots against the British, and so on, then it will not be able to deny all responsibility for the confederate flags that fly over South Carolina or the statues in Virginia – or the predictable tensions and even violence that ensue when one side tries to overwhelm another politically in a zero-sum game regarding their public visibility.
While the flying of confederate flags and the standing of bronze General Lees may be regarded as insensitive and indecent until such time as we sort out this mess, the ultimate goal is not that the confederate flags come down or the only generals represented in American statues are northern ones: it’s the development of a shared cultural context in which the flags and names have lost their power to divide, and Southerners are not made to feel guilty for celebrating everything in their history that is not slavery. But of course, when we finally get there, this point will be moot – because Southerners will then feel, at last, that the Stars and Stripes really is their flag too, and Northerners will realize that General Lee was actually one of their generals, too. (Think about that.)
And that’s the only ultimate, stable solution.
The integration of one minority depends on the integration of another.
Admit the South to a truly American identity and the need for confederate identity will disappear. And those who would object that Southerners can choose today whether to be Americans or confederates (who is stopping them, after all?) should respect the moral burden that comes from the historic choice to use force to subjugate the South – for whether that subjugation was justified does not change the fact that the method used to eliminate slavery was nevertheless one of violent imposition. And it is always the experience of violence – rather than the good intentions of those that used it – that determine the reaction of a defeated people through subsequent generations.
As the old saw goes, “the winners write the history”. The supposedly United States of America has already decided to write African Americans positively into its history, thank God. Now, healing our deep racial wounds depends on whether, with equal moral urgency, it writes the South positively into its history, too.
All the while we fail to do the latter, the South is being denied its American identity and will cling to the symbols of the only other identity it has.
And if, when they do so cling, the rest of us otherize them by calling them racists, burning their flag, and taking down their statues, we will make the problem worse: we will make them fly that confederate flag higher and so alienate our African American countrymen in those states even more. Or perhaps, if we’re too self-righteous, we will cause them to pin their flag up in dark rooms at home? Either way, we will have played our part in the continuation of the vicious cycle.
So yes, America desperately needs healing through integration.
But there’s more than one minority in this country that is made to feel that it is “in America but not of it”. Our nation, our shared nation, our beautiful nation, must come to terms with not only with the burden on the innocent ancestors of our history’s victims, but also with the burden on the innocent ancestors of our history’s victimizers.
In short, we must try to understand those who are discriminated against culturally as deeply as we do those who have been discriminated against racially. Accordingly, it would do us well to remember that practically all of us – black and white, Northerners and Southerners – are related to both slavers and enslaved if only we trace our genealogy back far enough – and no one alive today gets to take the credit or the blame for any of it.