The Michigan Juneteenth Controversy of 2015

One could convince most white Americans, without too much kicking and screaming, to admit that slavery constitutes a national embarrassment and we should all celebrate its end. But doing that often requires that we close the book and pretend that equality came completely and permanently in 1865. This contradicts the rest of the popular historical memory, which also assigns that date to 1776 and 1965 but these things rarely demand consistency. The perfection matters more than the date and infinitely more than the facts. We unite to celebrate the wonder of our triumph over division and injustice, not recognize its persistence and use past victories as inspiration for future efforts. If we really believed otherwise, we’d more eagerly celebrate Juneteenth. All the same, one imagines that something so innocuous as a resolution on the occasion should sail through any state legislature.

Michigan, my state, aims to disappoint.

The Juneteenth measure, which Democratic Sen. Bert Johnson of Highland Park had hoped would be adopted on June 19 — the holiday — was instead referred to a Senate committee Tuesday after behind-the-scenes wrangling.


Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Rick Jones, who is white, said unspecified GOP leaders asked him to change the “strange” and “quite shocking” resolution. The Grand Ledge Republican said parts of the measure are “sort of a political attack” instead of being celebratory in nature.

“When you do a resolution, this comes from all the senators, not just one. If he wants to make a tribute and have it just be from him, fine. But if it’s a resolution, it’s coming from all the senators,” Jones said. “It’s important that it be done appropriately.”

You can read the resolution here. The controversy arises over this passage:

After the emancipation from 246 years of slavery, Africans in American continue to experience the vestiges of slavery from challenges to voting rights, inadequate public education systems, lack of access to capital lending institutions, and other social and economic injustices; now, therefore, be it

Rick Jones informs us that the Republican leadership took this as a political attack. As the Republicans have a majority in the state Senate, their opinion generally prevails. Challenges to voting rights, poor schools, limited access to capital, and various other injustices disproportionately impact black Americans as much in Michigan as everywhere else in the nation. But to suggest that these flow from the original and greatest of injustices against them reaches out of bounds. It constitutes an attack. Such a resolution could not speak for the whole state Senate.

While slavery ended, de jure, in 1865 the injustices built into it did not all expire that year. For most of the subsequent century, save a promising decade or so, white Americans united to preserve most of them. We still do largely united around many of them, provided we can come up with a sufficiently colorblind pretense.

Confederate Battle FlagBut state Senators don’t always get the best history education. We can attribute the GOP leadership’s issue with the resolution to ignorance. If they genuinely don’t connect present injustices to past injustices from not knowing, fair enough. That would leave them with a distinct segment of the national population who do rather less well than the rest of us. Black Americans constitute far more of our poor, our unemployed, and our prison population than their numbers would account for. Looking at such a consistent pattern, one has only two explanations. Either America treats its black citizens disproportionately harshly and uncharitably or they have something conspicuously wrong with them. Otherwise, they would come out more or less the same as any other group of Americans.

Our white self-esteem suggests the latter option. Black Americans just gone wrong somehow. If they deserved equality or they would have it. We run a fair system here, dating all the way back to 1619. Nobody would enslave another unless they really had it coming. Our history, and an honest examination of the present, argue otherwise. White Americans have built and in many cases still build systems designed to use and exploit black Americans. If the GOP senators take that as a political attack, they ought to wonder why.

By denying that present injustices have their historical roots and implying them just rather than unjust, the Senate leadership have chosen to fly the same flag Bree Newsome took down last weekend whether they care to employ the colors visibly or not. That they did so in Michigan, rather than South Carolina, should remind us that systems of white supremacy only operated most notoriously in the South. Few white Americans, of any age or section, have cared to do much to disrupt them. Fewer still have cared to do so for those systems that benefit them personally. In this vein a past, Democratic state government convinced the Supreme Court to permit school segregation 1974, twenty years after Brown. It turns out that segregation meets constitutional muster provided one can erect a flimsy disguise around it.

I did not vote for Rick Jones or any other member of the GOP leadership, but the Michigan Senate speaks for all Michigan just as its resolutions speak for the whole Senate. I can only speak for myself, but I view the obstruction of the Juneteenth resolution as “quite shocking” and “sort of a political attack.” I cannot, however, say I view it as strange either in its content or in how it implicates me and millions of other Michigan residents. It speaks to one of the nation’s oldest political faiths and consequently seems to me, if not for the same reasons as it does to the Republicans, as entirely normal. I don’t know that we must uphold traditions, but it seems likely that we will choose to. In doing so, we say things about ourselves. We could choose to say better things and to undertake the obligations that they would entail. Or we can choose to keep flying a different flag.


Where Should the Present Iconoclasm End?

The Confederate memorial on the grounds of the Alabama capitol

The Confederate memorial on the grounds of the Alabama capitol

I set out to further explore Dylann Roof’s inspirations today. I might still do that, but others have written what I might have and probably done a better job of it than I would. For a deeper look at the mechanics of the system of white domination in Rhodesia, this UNESCO document came to my attention via Liam Hogan on twitter.

Instead of that, I’d like to consider a question posed by a fellow blogger. Over at Cenantua, Robert Moore asks, with Confederate flags going down and leaving stores, what falls next? He has a list of continuations on the theme:

We have discussions for the removal of Confederate statuary, that, though without the Confederate flag anywhere thereon.

We have vandalism (I think I’ve seen stories about 3 or 4 monuments so far) on Confederate statuary.

We have discussions about removing the names of Confederate generals from our military bases. (strange I haven’t heard about another base, which is named for a former member, and officer of the national organization of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Give it time, I suppose).

We have vandalism on non-Confederate statuary… the John C. Calhoun statue in Charleston. Though Calhoun died in 1850, he was a defender of slavery. Obviously, the “protests” have moved outside the Civil War and Confederate symbolism.

Then, last night, I saw, in the New York Post, a call for removing the film Gone With the Wind, from sales, etc.

I don’t know that Robert would agree with me, but I think most of those sound like really good ideas. Of the list, object to only two and only with qualifications.

Though I see essentially zero risk of it, I would oppose any kind of legal ban on the sale of Gone with the Wind or other such works. I don’t think this requires much explanation, so suffice it to say that I hold to the school that the answer to bad speech comes best in the form of more and better speech. However, if retailers choose to adopt policies of not selling the book, Confederate flags, and so forth then I have no objection at all. Indeed, I approve of their doing so insofar as their private bans don’t entail also such a broad net as to sweep in serious and respectable works which have the flag on their covers. I don’t mind at all if they relegate Confederate propaganda and other species of dressed-up racism to the less reputable outfits where they belong.

That leaves vandalism. I’ve read of several cases where statues have had pro-equality slogans and criticism spray painted on their pedestals. I object, but very weakly so. Cleaning the statues will cost money that could go to other things, as Al Mackey points out. The message would be as well expressed by a sign left at the site, and more durably so by getting a market put up beside them. A good message deserves better methods.

A corrective marker could begin by noting that the celebrated individuals won their accolades, including their statues and monuments, for deeds we now find reprehensible and go on to detail their human costs. I quite like the idea of accompanying every statue of Robert E. Lee with a sign reading something to the effect of “This man fought for slavery. For that, in the eyes of past generations, he earned this statue.” The marker could go on to detail Lee’s slave whipping exploit and his personal commitment to the institution’s perpetuity. Make it big and impossible to miss. I don’t expect these markers to spring up very quickly. The latter-day admirers of the Confederacy’s cause will fight them tooth and nail. It took us nine lives on top of fifty years, at least, of activism to take down some flags. The exponents of racial hatred have that much power.

Robert E. Lee, Virginia aristocrat, military officer, and future confederate general

Robert E. Lee

Failing augmentation with corrective markers, I don’t see why we have to keep these monuments at all. I have no objection to their removal to private property or their destruction by the bodies which own them. I would prefer either to their remaining in situ and unaccompanied by correctives. The roads and buildings all can and should have their names changed easily enough. In the place of Confederates and other proslavery men, I would use the names of those who resisted slavery and fought to end it. Ideally, these should come from the history of the area or the area of the person formally honored, and with a preference for enslaved people. Calhoun Street can become Vesey Street. (Though dead ten years too early to become a Confederate, Calhoun won his fame defending slavery just as they did.) For Lee, we can substitute Nat Turner or Gabriel Prosser.

This does not constitute an erasure of history. By renaming buildings, relocating or removing monuments we do not wipe away the past or deny what happened any more than we do by adding correctives. We do, however, change our relationship with the pasts they represent. We don’t name streets, buildings, or erect statues and monuments to people we revile. We do this for people we honor and celebrate. By doing it in a public space, we declare that our communities should take them as exemplars. The people who did the naming and dedicated the statues understood that. They established for themselves and future generations a civic safe space to express their admiration for the literally murderous exponents of white supremacy and slavery above all other concerns. In reversing that, we do the same and carve out a safe, or at least safer, space for black Americans and others who have had the burdens of the nation forced upon them and extracted from their lives often enough.

Where, then, could monuments and memorials to those who fought in the name of slavery and earned their fame in doing so remain? I oppose the removal of educational markers at historical sites. Something like a stone saying this unit fought here serves an obvious use and does not, to my mind, suggest in itself any form of celebration. I would also oppose removing markers from the actual graves of Confederates in cemeteries. Marking a grave doesn’t necessitate making a political statement and replacing all the CSA headstones seems both impractical and unnecessary, though I might support some kind of grant program to descendants who wanted changes made.

Memorials to Confederate soldiers or Confederate dead, on the other hand, do just that. They function just as monuments to individual Confederates do. Whatever element of mourning went into them died with their next of kin and belonged more properly at individual graves regardless. They serve now as calls to celebrate and honor a group of people united solely in their defense of slavery. I class their unaltered, unaugmented maintenance as one of many ways in which we still affirm their cause. If we choose to do that, as we have so often done in the past, then we should expect others to understand us not as making a neutral acknowledgement of our past. Even if we could manage such a thing, we couldn’t do it with celebratory markers.

I hope that, as with the Confederate Battle Flag, when we see such acts we think not of some nebulous and presumed neutral or positive “heritage” but rather of the real price that our attachment to white supremacy has exacted. When we see them we should think, among other things, of scenes like this:

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

A hand with a whip in it, slicing out great ribbons of black flesh from the back of Peter Gordon.

Margaret Garner with tears in her eyes as she draws her three-year old daughter close and opens her throat with a knife to spare her a lifetime of rape and torture, then desperately reaching for a coal shovel to spare her three sons. She couldn’t save them in time.

The crowd at a lynching, coming up to the not yet dead bodies of a Luther Holbart and woman they thought his wife, carving off plugs of flesh for souvenirs, once their fingers ran out. They then burned the victims alive. The mob, men, women, and children partook of deviled eggs, lemonade, whiskey, and made a picnic of it.

The headline from the New Orleans States: 3,000 WILL BURN NEGRO. The police turned John Hartfield over to the mob at the scheduled time, four in the afternoon, all very proper and orderly. They burned him alive.

If we still feel like celebrating after that, then we deserve what others think of us. The real erasure and denial of history comes in pretending that we do not celebrate what we do, that the Confederates and their antecedents did not fight for what they did, and that their ideas about race do not have a powerful resonance for far too many Americans today. We all have unfortunate, often horrifying ancestors. It does us no harm to admit to that and may do much good. They had their lives and we have our own. If we insist that judgment of them constitutes judgment of us, then we should also accept that we do so because we want to share in their record rather than depart from it.

The Face of Racism Today

We have this stereotype of a racist in white America. The racist, almost always male, embodies just about every trope that we associate with poor white Americans. He comes to us unkempt, wrapped in a Confederate Battle Flag and a white sheet, or a brown shirt and an armband. He nearly always speaks with a southern accent. Such people do exist, just as people who speak with the same accent and fight for racial justice exist. So too to people bearing the totems of success. I’ll have a bit more to say about these upmarket racists tomorrow, but wanted to highlight something I’ve just seen over at Salon.

They had the good sense to ask Eric Foner what he thought about racism in modern America and my sort-of professor had this insight well worth remembering:

The problems of black Americans today, putting aside this terrible event, are rooted in history, but are also rooted in the present. The face of racism today is not a slaveowner; it’s a guy in a three-piece suit at Wells Fargo who had been putting blacks into subprime mortgage, until they lost their homes in 2008. It’s the people who will not hire a black person. It’s the people who will not hire a person when they see he has a black-sounding name [on his résumé]. In other words, the point of studying history is to understand its link to the present — but it’s not to displace the problems of the present. It’s not to say this is rooted in history and the slaveowners are responsible for whatever the problem is today.

Our preoccupation with linking things we find disreputable, at least in public, with the trappings of poverty and ignorance both obscures the good work done by good people born in the nation’s most stereotyped region or who didn’t go to elite universities and blinds us to the sophisticated, white collar assaults on the lives of black Americans. We too easily pretend that class has nothing to do with race, ignoring that white Americans have long ensured black Americans remain disproportionately poor. If we condemn racism but do nothing to remedy the economics deprivations and still-extant barriers that drive it, have we done anything at all?

Slavery served as a system of racial control, but enslavers invented race to justify their economic exploitation and bring into solidarity with them poor whites who did not benefit financially from it like the great planters did. We have ended slavery, at least de jure, but the exploitation lives on. Neither removing some flags nor our applauding of the removal will do change that.

Confederate Flags and the Monuments They Adorn

Confederate Battle Flag

It seems that the Confederate Battle Flag on the grounds of the South Carolina capitol will likely come down. If we see the back of the flag as it descends into the proper netherworld of memory, then we should remember how it got there. The flag rose back in 1961 to protest integration and declare the state’s firm commitment to segregation forever. It moved from above the capitol building itself back in 200o. Now it may leave entirely, just as it shall leave the shelves of the nation’s larger retailers. Good riddance.

By these tiny steps, bought most recently at the cost of nine lives, we measure progress. If and when the flag departs, we will congratulate ourselves again on the death of racism. Most white Americans will probably not consider that it took an outbreak of Reconstruction-level violence to move a piece of cloth. This says many things about us, none of them good.

The flag presently adorns a Confederate veteran’s memorial. That might seem like a good excuse to keep it. The legislators who voted it over to that spot and then required a supermajority to move it again, certainly thought so. By placing it there, they dared future critics to disrespect the memory of the dead by challenging it again, or fall silent and so accept the flag. That sounds like an easy choice to me. When probably every other flag in South Carolina flew at half-mast, the Confederate Battle Flag flew high. Given the cause for which the veterans in question risked their lives, one could imagine it flying a bit higher. Did it grow a metaphorical inch taller for each death?

One can argue that the flag sits in an appropriate context. The veterans fought and died under it, or one like it, so why not fly it over their memorial? If the flag can’t fly there, then where could it fly? I don’t know why “nowhere” would prove unacceptable. Private individuals can do what they like with their flags on their property, but the grounds of governments buildings belong to, and inherently speak for, all of us. The foes of white supremacy should not deny to themselves this particular power that the cause’s friends exercised in decades past. They erected the flag, and the monuments and all the rest, to celebrate their crusade and venerate its martyrs. Those who preached the subjugation of black Americans had their way and spoke on behalf of us all by putting up their flags. We can choose other crusades with other martyrs and try the same by taking them down.

US Navy sailors visiting the Yasakuni Shrine in 1933

US Navy sailors visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in 1933

We could probably do with some national soul-searching about the Confederate monuments too. In saying that I don’t mean to insult or offend the descendants of Confederate soldiers. But I don’t know how to separate a soldier from the cause he or she fought for, without reducing the soldier to a meaningless object of blind veneration. This strikes me as doing far greater violence to their memory than simply ignoring them, if not quite so much as outright lying about them. To make the point, I’d like to consider it in the context of a different situation:

In Japan, one can visit the Yasukuni Shrine. The shrine honors the sacrifices of all those, Japanese and otherwise, who died in the service of the Empire of Japan. While Japan still has an Emperor, he lacks even the limited reserve powers that the usual constitutional monarch enjoys. Thus the Empire of Japan generally runs from the Meiji Restoration of the late 1860s until 1947. In that time, Japan waged, brutal imperialist wars. While Americans remember Pearl Harbor and the rest, Imperial Japan did far worse to China. The Japanese military employed chemical and biological weapons against the Chinese, something they dared not attempt against European or American enemies. Those enshrined within include not just ordinary soliders, but more than a thousand convicted war criminals, fourteen of whom postwar tribunals found guilty of Class A war crimes. One goes to the shrine to venerate their spirits.

Japan’s wartime victims and their descendants don’t look fondly upon the shrine. The history of close government cooperation with it and repeated visits by Japanese prime ministers do little to help. Nor does the shrine’s embrace of Japan’s native version of the Lost Cause in the attached museum.

I suspect most Americans would read this as a sign that Japan hasn’t really moved that far beyond its wartime self. Something has gone wrong, or never gone right, with Japan for such a state of affairs to persist. When it makes the news here, the stories generally run in that vein. The fact that relatively few Japanese people actually frequent the shrine or endorse its history doesn’t enter into things. Nor does it matter that the shrine operates as a private establishment and thus the Japanese state can’t just order changes. But even allowing these nuances, the shrine should give us cause for some concern.

If we can have that concern about Japan, why can’t we have it at home? I don’t mean that we should just take crowbars and bulldozers to Confederate monuments with glee, or that we should root around national parks removing the markers for this regiment and that, but they could do with a harder look. Many of them have inscriptions rife with Lost Cause tropes. The Confederate Soldier’s Monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol declares that those it honors “died for state rights guaranteed under the Constitution” without saying the only right of any state actually in question. Many other monuments, in Texas and elsewhere, do much the same.

These displays tell a story and we should consider if we want to keep telling it or not. How does it differ from the story taught at the Yasukuni Shrine and museum? If we look askance at one, then how can we not do the same of the other? We will have shrines one way or another. The ones we choose speak volumes. If we have chosen poorly before, we can choose differently now. No law of nature demands we go on as we have. Only we can demand that.

A Murderous Tradition of White America

The victims, via the BBC

The victims, via the BBC

Denmark Vesey, an enslaved man who had bought his freedom with lottery winnings, planned an uprising in Charleston, South Carolina. He and a small band of co-conspirators would quickly seize arms and then distribute them to Charleston’s slave majority. Together they would kill the whites who owned Vesey’s wife and children, who had owned him, and who did own others. Freedom would come on Bastille Day, July 14, 1822, later rescheduled to midnight of June 16 thus setting the fight for June 17. A preacher as well as a carpenter, Vesey had used his ministry as well as family and other social ties to recruit for his insurrection. Someone talked and Charleston’s whites called out their militia. Vesey and thirty-four others met their ends not in the heat of battle, except in the way that all black Americans endured it day to day. Nor did they sail off to Haiti as they might have hoped. Instead they expired hanging from Charleston’s gallows. Charleston’s once panicked, but now somewhat reassured, white citizens trampled another enslaved person in their enthusiasm. By seeing the failed revolutionaries, who probably included a fair number of people who knew nothing about any plots, hang from the neck until dead they could begin to satisfy themselves that the just order of the universe still endured.

Vesey helped found the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. In white churches, masters could force the enslaved to hear parables about how they must faithfully serve and submit and steer them clear of anything that might give them ideas about freedom. A white church entailed white control. A black church did not. There enslaved and free black Americans alike could worship as they pleased, educate themselves, organize their communities, and carve out at least small spaces for self-determination in lives so often circumscribed by the maledictions of white supremacy. To have a black church, to go there and worship, served as an act of resistance. The whites of Charleston knew that all too well. They closed its doors in 1818, 1819, and 1820. With Vesey on their minds, they burned the building down.

The parishioners did not disperse. They rebuilt and continued until South Carolina outlawed black churches entirely in 1834. That drove them underground until after the Civil War. Vesey’s son designed the new church building. It served as a place for organization, activism, and self-improvement through Reconstruction and the dark years of Jim Crow. That earned many churches attacks and burning at the hands of white terrorists. They knew where black Americans most fully expressed their freedom and sought to better their lives and acted accordingly. Some white Americans still do.

On the evening of June 17, 2015, the AME church had Bible study. Thirteen people attended. After about an hour, one of them drew a gun. He left behind eight dead: Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Sharonda Coleman Singleton, and Myra Thompson. Another, Daniel Simmons, died from his wounds later.

Before the night ended, I read the first denials. The assassin, a white man, did not “really” look white. The racial experts, so far as I can tell, determined this by the proven method of silently assuming white skin made one righteous. The assassin did what they must, in public at least, call unrighteous. They must also declare it an isolated incident. They must cast the assassin as a lone wolf, presumably with mental health problems. Thus quarantined and then pathologized, they can shrug off nine lives. It has nothing to do with them or with our politics. Racism, they tell us, mysteriously died somewhere in the 1960s. We drew the curtain on that.

I don’t know if the assassin struggled with mental illness or not. Most mentally ill people don’t indulge in violence any more than anybody else. More likely they will receive it than deal it out. Nor, if it transpires that the assassin does have a history of mental illness, does it mean that he chose his deeds because of that and to the exclusion of all other concerns. I do know that if he simply cracked and went on a rampage, then he picked a staggeringly unlikely target. He could have shot up a Walmart or a gas station. He could have beat a dog. Instead he picked the AME church and situated himself in one of white America’s most ancient and hallowed traditions: destroying the lives of black Americans. If he had that motive, and I don’t know how one denies it, then he chose his targets and his methods as sensibly as anybody else.

But we don’t have to speculate about this. The assassin proudly posed bearing not just the conventional flag of American white supremacy, the Confederate Battle Flag, but also the kind of emblem for which one has to go looking. He wore the flag of Apartheid South Africa. I’ve seen enough displays to know that just about anywhere with Civil War history and a gift shop sells Confederate flags. Given this all happened in Charleston, I’m sure the assassin did not have to look long to find his. But a South African flag more than twenty years out of use? That took some hunting; he had to go out of his way. To it he added the flag of white Rhodesia, which had a regime similar to South Africa’s. That takes us far into the weeds of white supremacy.

According to witnesses, the assassin declared his purpose while inside the church:

You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go

Words like those blessed every lynching. Between his choice of targets, his choice of symbols, and his own declaration at the event no reasonable, honest person can deny that the assassin acted inspired by and for the furtherance of white supremacy. The same people asking us to pretend otherwise now had no difficulty indicting a billion Muslims not that long ago. They flinch not an instant from indicting millions of black Americans whenever the police shoot one. They ask us again and again to take long, hard looks at the communities that produce such people. Something has gone wrong, culturally, that explains all of this. These pleas would elicit only laughter at their absurdity if not for the hatred behind them.

Someone took the assassin’s pictures. Someone else sold him the flags. Still other people named the street the church stands on after John C. Calhoun, knowing full well his most famous work:

I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good-a positive good.

Calhoun didn’t get the street named after him despite that; he earned his street because of it. Still others named the streets of South Carolina, dozens of Confederate roads to a mere handful of black Americans.

And, of course, South Carolina put the Confederate flag up over its capital to protest integration. The compromise that moved it elsewhere on the grounds also ensured it would prove almost impossible to move again by requiring a 2/3 majority vote of both houses of the legislature for any changes. The South Carolina of 1820 only required a majority of both houses to approve the manumission of a slave.

This attack does not present us with a mystery. The assassin told us with words and action precisely what he intended to do. The people who tell us otherwise could not have chosen a more obvious lie. He acted alone and isolated only in the narrowest, most literal sense that he did not gather together a conspiracy to help him. He had accomplices, morally at least, all around him. The people who named the streets, who raised the flag, who smiled off camera and took his picture, all played their part. They told the assassin that people who prosecuted the case for white supremacy, to the very point of war, deserved recognition and celebration. We don’t name streets after people we consider villains. We don’t fly flags we view as odious.

The assassin has other accomplices who now pretend that the shooting had nothing to do with the persistence of white supremacy in the United States. They might deplore his methods, but by obscuring his ideology they enable it. Whether they cloak their cries of white power in the language of anti-anti-racism, as if one prefix did not negate the other, or say nothing because they dare not alienate what they correctly understand as a key voting constituency, they attend the shooting with more than indifference and less than the abhorrence it deserves. They know full well that if the assassin had different skin color or a different presumed religion, they would have no such scruples. How does one explain any of that, unless the excusers and obscurers are themselves white supremacists? If that doesn’t amount to racism, then nothing does.

This denial affords the sophisticated white supremacist many advantages. By concealing race, even narrowly, his or her ideals can appeal to people who have unacknowledged prejudices. A South Carolinian, not all that long ago, articulated just that strategy:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

It worked for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush. They oversaw the great political realignment of living memory, transforming the white South from a Democratic stronghold into one just as committed to what was once the Party of Lincoln. I don’t mean to say here that every white conservative, or even every white Republican considers a sheet with eye holes cut out the most fashionable species of haberdashery. Nor do I mean to excuse white liberals all in favor of integration until it comes to their suburbs or demands their children sit next to black children. Likewise I indict our white suburbs and white neighborhoods of the North and West as much as anywhere in the old slave states.

This sickness comes not just from one group of political partisans, but from the air we breathe. American law defines domestic terrorism this way:

(5) the term “domestic terrorism” means activities that—

(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;

(B) appear to be intended—

(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
(C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.
Yet the director of Barack Obama’s Federal Bureau of Investigation can’t find it in himself to call the attack terrorism. So far as I know, he does not dispute the location. Does he not count black Americans as citizens? As civilians? Does shooting them dead not constitute a danger to human life or a violation of the law? Must we believe, after hearing what the assassin said, that he did not intend to intimidate or coerce others? At least his boss disagrees. Digging further back, Bill Clinton had Confederate flag campaign materials when he ran for president in 1992. We do not depart from the norm or default state of affairs to indulge in white supremacy. We uphold it as the default condition.

White America has this problem. White America made it in making white America and could unmake it the same way. We could react the same way to white terrorists like Dylann Roof and Timothy McVeigh as we do to bearded men with unfamiliar names or, one hopes, react to both in a way far less destructive. Their domestic terrorism has claimed far more of the latter than any people with foreign-sounding names could have dreamed. We grant ourselves the luxuries of our denial, paid for in the lives of others. White people get to claim perfect innocence. We let ourselves not know the long history of our own misdeeds. We let ourselves ignore how we made the ghetto. We pat ourselves on the back for ending slavery and pretend that we didn’t reinstate much of it and, indeed, continue some of it today through mass incarceration. We take our numerous privileges for granted and deem anybody who questions them a troublemaker. We have done this since the seventeenth century. But we could stop it. It wouldn’t come easy. It would make us uncomfortable.

We have it in us to do better if we want to. We have organized the entire system to ensure we may do as we please. Having done so, we must take the outcomes we observe as those we actually accept, whatever we may preach when convenient. We could do better tomorrow. We could have done better last Wednesday night. If we really wanted to make the assassination into an isolated incident, tragic but not speaking to broader realities, we could have started then. We didn’t. This is the world that white America made and that most white Americans at least tolerate, if not embrace. Probably more of us go that extra mile, at least if we put the assassin in the right uniform or give him slightly more sophisticated slogans, than we would care to admit.

Will this finally be the turning point? I know no more of the future than anybody else, but our sorry performance to date points at best to more of the same. That means that the nine lives claimed last week constitute less the last and deadliest individual attack on black Americans since Reconstruction, but simply the latest and deadliest for now. The arc of history only bends invariably toward justice in our aspirations. Reversion to horrifying past norms happens just as often as permanently foreclosing them. Making those into reality requires action that I feel fairly confident white America will not so much as contemplate. We don’t want it to be over. We have a tradition to maintain for as long as the right people pay the price for us.

Don’t take my word or John Stewart’s word for it. Consider what the most prominent of the Sunday morning talk shows opted to air on its first episode after the shooting.

Flags & Nooses

Confederate Battle Flag

Confederate Battle Flag

Everybody knows that the Southern states had slavery. The institution, in fact, made them Southern rather than something else. But the nation’s most notorious white supremacists have their less famous cousins north of the Mason-Dixon line. There states passed laws banning black Americans from living within their bounds. That degree of racism prompted proslavery men to answer back that they thought more highly of their slaves than northerners did of free blacks. Until the Great Migration early in the twentieth century, most black Americans lived in the South. Probably most would have anyway, as they and their ancestors had lived there for generations, but when they fled white terrorism and came to northern cities they found more of the same. The Klan effectively ran the state of Indiana for some time. Midwestern cities, like many others, still bear the stamp of that particular history: whites fled the city core and inner suburbs to achieve segregation impossible therein. Their children than wrung their hands and wondered just what had happened to the cities.

I would like to say we do better now, but cities remain highly segregated. You don’t need de jure Jim Crow when you’ve simply created de facto whites only jurisdictions. You can find many of these whites only suburbs around the country, but this story brings me to one on the outskirts of Detroit. There a man put up a Confederate flag, a habit my neighbors like to think only exists in far warmer climes than our own state. They don’t seem to notice the people who drive around with one on their license plate or covering the rear window of the pickup truck. Nor do they often recognize that the integration of the high school, during my own tenure there, required the attention of the county sheriff. Only people with other accents do such things. Not content with the flag itself, Robert Tomanovich of Livonia, MI, added nooses hanging from trees to the display outside his house and another property he owns down the road.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

Tomanovich’s wife offered excuses to the reporter that came asking questions. You can believe them if you like, but I don’t find the combination of the Confederate battle flag and a noose in a tree a likely coincidence. Quite what he hopes to accomplish in lily-white Livonia I don’t know. When the reporter pressed his wife on how others might see the display, she shrugged the question off. That hardly seems like the behavior of a person trying to draw attention to how the town got the demographics it has with a deliberately provocative act.

Tomanovich owns the property. He can display what he likes there and broke no law in doing so. But that does not make his display innocuous. I really don’t know how to read it as anything short of a proud declaration that a person who approves of lynching lives there. Thus people of the wrong color should not feel safe in the area. I can’t read Tomanovich’s mind to know it, but I strongly suspect that I have taken the correct meaning from his tableau. One need not live in the land of cotton to remember the bad old times.

Those Texas License Plates

Texas SCV plateGentle Readers, I somehow convinced myself that I had written on this case. It turns out that I have not, as I learned via Twitter. Other bloggers have weighed in on the subject. I don’t feel that I have a great deal to add, but the issue is worth thinking about all the same.

The relevant facts, as I see them, run as follows: Texas raises money, sometimes a great deal of it, by selling vanity license plates. You can get the numbers and letters you like, provided someone else hasn’t filed first. Private groups can further submit to the state designs in of their choosing and receive a cut of the revenue generated by them. The Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans put forward their plate design and Texas refused it. The design bore, as one would expect, a Confederate flag. The SCV sued and the case reached the Supreme Court (PDF) this past week.

My previous opinions on the use of Confederate flags still stand, but I think Texas’ case is very weak. The state, whatever formal apparatus it has set up to vet submissions for plates, has adopted a nigh-absolute lack of discretion in practice. As Andy Hall notes, you can get Texas plates in more than two hundred different brands, including those of universities from outside of Texas. That alone makes its refusals conspicuous and worthy of closer looks, even aside other issues. One might have a very unusual sort of submission with content problematic for other reasons. A plate including an explicit endorsement of violence against minorities would probably not pass muster. The SCV plate doesn’t do that.

That said, having read Texas’ argument before the Court I think they do have a point that by putting a group’s advertisement on their license plate they have given it a form of state endorsement. The ad adorns an official state document. The state receives money from its issuance. It literally goes into business with the SCV, should it sell the plates. The state has an obvious and legitimate interest in controlling what messages go out, again literally, under its name. However, by what nineteenth century Americans might call its promiscuous issuing of plates, Texas has essentially yielded its ability to do so in the given forum.

Otherwise, as the justices note in oral arguments, one creates a precedent where Texas could sell plates reading “Vote Republican” and refuse to issue “Vote Democratic”. It could put the same message on all its election materials, presumably down to the paper ballots themselves. Anybody would recognize that as obvious partisanship and, I hope, an improper use of state power for electoral advantage. The license plates, then, come down to one of those all or nothing positions where we either must affirm the rights of individuals to buy the plates and so participate in a relatively unregulated public forum which the state has created, or close up the forum. Texas, and other states, can close the door they opened. But if they do so, they must close it for everyone.

One does not have a principle if one yields it to inconvenience. This inevitably means at times we find ourselves on the side of people or messages we find personally loathsome. Either one supports equal rights, or one doesn’t really support rights at all but rather particular privileges that accrue to oneself at the expense of others. That kind of hypocrisy never goes out of fashion and we will probably never purge ourselves of it entirely, but we have more options than perfection or perfect stagnation. We can manage better, even if we can’t reach best.

This will give little consolation to people who have to look at the plates and know the history of the symbol, of course. I don’t mean to trivialize their objections, which I share. An official state plate does transgress good taste more than a private bumper sticker would, but I think both fall under the exercise of free speech.

Where to fly that flag?

Where and when?

Where and when?

I’ve written about the Confederate Battle Flag before but I don’t think I’ve written about when and where one ought to fly it. Brooks Simpson asked that, at least implicitly, in the post I wrote in response to yesterday. That comes to mind especially as I’ve followed the comic saga of the Virginia Flaggers, a group devoted to the strange position that Virginia wants to suppress and deny its Confederate history. One would think people who lived in Virginia knew better. After various defeats, they leased some private land by a freeway south of Richmond where they now fly their flag. Many of the bloggers I’ve read on the subject could not contain their awe at the flagger’s triumph. You can read all about it here. Andy Hall even gave them an apology. He, like probably everybody commenting, assumed they might be effective. I know that I did. Shows us, right?

But yahoos aside, where should one display that flag? To my knowledge, Germany does fairly well at answering the same question of its own troubled banner with “nowhere.” I don’t know all the details, but apparently any kind of Nazi emblem or memorabilia can only be displayed in proper historical context per German law. I don’t endorse importing that law and fining or arresting people for waiving Confederate flags, but the idea behind it seems like a good one for any historical symbols. They ought to go up and remain up where they aid in modern understanding of events, where they existed at the time, and so forth. If a battlefield marks Confederate positions with flags, or they fly from memorials to Confederate units, provided those are the correct flags for the era, that sounds fine to me. Flying it over historical buildings preserved as museums of the time also fits.

Flying the flag over current government buildings involves different issues, as the flag largely departed those buildings in 1865 or earlier. It came back to fight against Civil Rights and Jim Crow’s diehard supporters made that very clear. Continued display in that vein does tell a story about the past and the present, but in a very different way. That flag declares for White Supremacy and proclaims it the policy of the government. That it remains gives the impression to a fair observer that the policy commitment also endures. Sometimes, if not as often as it used to, it really does endure. I’d like to see the lot of those taken down. Put the originals under glass and display them in a museum about the Civil Rights Movement or American racism. They belong there. They do not belong flying over buildings in any government committed to serving all its people, regardless of the color of their skin. Nor do they belong flying ominously outside historically black churches.

I did not pull that example from thin air. One of the Virginia Flaggers went to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s church to show his flag. Over at CW Memory, Kevin Levin has the picture. When you bring the slavery and Jim Crow banner to display outside a church at the center of the Civil Rights Movement, it makes a statement about Southern heritage that viewers have little trouble understanding. It doesn’t quite reach the level of brandishing James Earl Ray’s gun, which would be hard to get, or wearing his face inside a heart on a t-shirt, but the content differs little. Would a white hood have been too on the nose?

Outside proper historical contexts, I have trouble seeing why one would even want to fly that flag unless they understand themselves as carrying on the politics that brought Confederate flags out of the attics in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Heritage? I would think that includes more than four years of war 150 years ago even if one’s idea of national heritage only includes the former major slave states…a problematic situation in itself.

Racially Biased Juries and the Confederacy

Via Kevin Levin, I’ve learned that Ed Sebesta worries about racial bias in juries. That’s a fair concern which I share. I think minorities, especially black men, have a much harder time getting a fair trial than a white person would in comparable circumstances. That’s probably just as true at the courthouse a mile away from me in Northern Michigan as it is down in Texas or South Carolina. Screening for racial bias makes perfectly good sense and I imagine that the methods used might stand improvement.

Sebesta and his coauthor suggest using these questions to screen jurors:

  1. Are you a member of the League of the South, Council of Conservative Citizens, Sons of Confederate Veterans, United Daughters of the Confederacy or any other pro-Confederate organization?
  2. Do you identify with the Confederacy or the Union?
  3. Do you think it is appropriate for public officials to praise Confederate leaders?
  4. Do you think it is appropriate when states, counties, cities and other municipalities adopt Confederate symbols in their logos, flags, seals, or other symbols they might adopt?
  5. Do you think it would have been better if the Confederacy had succeeded in seceding?
  6. Do you display Confederate symbols such as flags, flag decals, bumper stickers, tattoos or other visual representations of the Confederacy.

Kevin does not care for the questions and I mostly agree.

I recognize Sebesta’s name from way back in the Nineties, when his website introduced me to the term neo-confederate but I have not really followed his career and can’t actually remember anything I read on it back then in any detail. I will thus defer to Kevin on the rest of his work and limit myself to the questions on hand.

Having such a list, instead of just asking something like “are you a racist?” or “do you belong to any white supremacist organization?” makes perfectly good sense. Probably almost no white person in America today will answer yes to either in mixed company. Overt racism  does not fly like it used to. Instead modern American white supremacy usually finds expression through code words and dog whistles that appear innocent and unrelated to race to the casual observer but which those with serious racial animus understand quite differently. Including in that list specific organizations with known racist politics or histories also makes sense. American history simply does not offer any organization with a more thoroughgoing racist pedigree than the Confederate States of America. (The United States of America comes fairly close, though.)

This list does its job poorly, though. I’ll take them one at a time.

1) If these organizations promote Lost Cause-style interpretations of the war, slavery, and Reconstruction I think it’s perfectly fair to treat membership in them as evidence of white supremacy. I don’t know enough about all of them to say that they do and as such whether they even belong on the same list with those which do. However, any list of such organizations will never cover them all. The racists, covert and overt alike, can form new organizations as fast or faster than the rest of us could add them to the list.

2) On the face of it, this seems fair. But what does it mean to identify with the Confederacy or Union? Certainly we know from history that the same men often did both. But even if we rewrite it the question to ask which one predominantly or preferentially identifies with an answer does not tell us much. I loathe almost everything to do with the Confederacy and slavery on a pretty deep, visceral level. But if in the course of my reading I come on some biographical detail from a Confederate’s life that remind me of my own, which I have done, then on some level I do identify with that figure. That doesn’t mean I agree with him or his politics, only that we have some other things in common. Identifying with something or someone does not, in itself, tell you much.

3) Which Confederate leaders? For what? When? I would look askance at a politician who constantly brought up how great some Confederate was in random, unrelated circumstances. I would certainly look askance at one who said he or she admired their politics. But if someone praises Jackson’s Valley Campaign or Lee’s ability to hold the Army of Northern Virginia together and prevail so consistently against superior numbers and resources, that hardly implicates them in any racism in itself. This kind of admiration stands a world apart from praising Alexander Stephens for the vision of government he articulated in the Cornerstone Speech.

4) This one seems fair all the way down. With very few exceptions, and only historical sites where the display is period-appropriate come immediately to mind, I do think government facilities adopting Confederate symbols is extremely problematic and generally a good diagnostic criteria for racism. Confederate symbols largely vanished from government after the war and only returned for the cause of white supremacy.

5) I know fellow leftists who have said that, including some pretty consistently anti-racist people. They’re wrong because a victorious Confederacy would hardly have abolished slavery in 1865. So far as slavery goes, we’d have done better if George Washington’s head decorated a pike in London instead of rested in a tomb in Virginia. The British Empire abolished slavery in the 1830s. In a bizarre world where the rest of the nation let the Confederacy go and it somehow became a stable nation of its own, it likely would have had the wherewithal to maintain slavery essentially indefinitely. But not thinking things through and being blinded by contemporary political frustrations do not in themselves make one a racist.

The Stars and Bars. The saltire flags (with the blue X) are different.

The Stars and Bars. The saltire flags (with the blue X) differ.

6) If I write a post about the history of the various Confederate flags, I would include them in the post. How else would the reader know what I’m talking about? I can describe the things, but the images do better than paragraphs of vexillological exposition. Wanting my readers to easily understand and keep straight various symbols hardly makes me a racist, but I would undoubtedly display the flags in the course of so doing. I would do the same if I posted period photos or illustrations which included them. For that matter, I think reenactors have a goofy hobby but that doesn’t make them necessarily racist either. (Full disclosure: My own goofy hobbies include pretending to be an elf and a superhero.) Context matters.

Sebesta has a great idea but gave it a great beating with ill-considered, blunt object questions.

On the Confederate Battle Flag

I intended to come to this topic a while from now, but via Civil War Memory I’ve come upon this video that deserves wide viewing. It includes a racial epithet, so far warning there.

As a white guy from the North, who never had to endure anything like what this man and millions of others endured, I don’t feel that I deserve to say I see the flag the same way he does.  No one has ever screamed a racial epithet at me.  I didn’t live through segregation.

But when someone flies the Confederate flag, tells me they think the South (always synonymous with the Confederacy) suffered a great wrong and ought to have won, pines for those old time values and the nation before Lincoln and the Republicans turned it into a centralized state, I look for the white hood too.  I don’t know how many of these people do it consciously, but they all clearly hearken back to the days when white people had license to treat black people abominably. If they wanted to celebrate Southernness, itself a problematic concept, they could pick jazz or a riverboat or a magnolia or any number of other icons to mark the region. They chose instead the flag of a treasonous movement devoted to the preservation and expansion  of slavery. They chose a flag that furthermore went up into attics and fell into disuse after the war, until it came time to fight the Civil Rights Movement.

How can anybody honestly claim innocence in light of that? On some level, they must know what they’re doing. They do not speak for all Southerners, or even all white Southerners. (Shelby Foote describes Southerners as the only Americans who lost a war, but of course four million black Southerners won that war. They didn’t count to Shelby. ) But they clearly mean to speak for them all. They claim Southern heritage as their own and set themselves up as its defenders, crying foul whenever someone points out the salient facts about the symbols they choose. One person might be clueless, but a movement of thousands had ample time and opportunity for a more learned person to step up and say “Hey guys, this symbol does not say what we want to say about ourselves.”

They still picked the Confederate Battle Flag. They knew what they meant and chose accordingly. They do see the cause of the Confederacy as their own, if not to restore slavery then at least to preserve white supremacy. The red in that flag came off the whipped, broken, and violated bodies of four million slaves and untold thousands who came after lynched, tortured, beaten, terrorized, disenfranchised, and intimidated by those carrying it. Ignoring those people sends the message that they don’t matter, aligning us with those who wronged them. That alignment still plays out every day in ways great and small.