After the horrific 2015 Charleston church massacre was carried out by an avowed “neo-Confederate,” the Stars-and-Bars was removed from the South Carolina statehouse, and corporate retailers like Amazon, Walmart, and eBay pulled all merchandise featuring the infamous flag, as did the National Park Service. The election of Donald Trump, who drew strong support from the Deep South, has appeared to deepen antipathy towards Confederate symbols, and white nationalist protests in Charlottesville and elsewhere have intensified counter-efforts to remove statues, street signs, and building names honoring Confederate leadership from public display. Even the revelation that the Game of Thrones showrunners were developing a new fictional series called Confederate, which imagines modern implications of a Southern victory in the Civil War, was swiftly met with widespread derision in progressive circles.
In almost every case, those on the left unquestionably support actions taken against Confederate iconography, and understandably so. Objects evoking white supremacy, Jim Crow, and the inhumane bondage of black men, women, and children serve as an active source of pain for African Americans at a time when black lives are still systemically devalued, and there would thus seem both a practical and moral imperative for progressive support of their removal.
Yet there is also an ongoing strand of condescension towards the Deep South, expressed most explicitly through the contemporary culture war politics of the Civil War, which feels less like a sincere attempt to reduce harm than a means of preserving the myth of our own American exceptionalism.
The left ought to more seriously consider the inconsistent application of our principles towards Southern symbols. For instance, why are the stars-and-bars regarded as an irreducibly racist emblem while the American flag is spared such totalizing scrutiny? After all, the stars-and-stripes flew over chattel slavery for decades and could justifiably be seen as a symbol of our government’s policy of genocide against Native Americans, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, the dropping of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the setting up of Japanese-American internment camps, Vietnam, Iraq, CIA skullduggery, drone warfare, and countless other acts of imperialism, military aggression, white supremacy, and political and corporate malfeasance.
Well, one might fairly say, the stars-and-stripes certainly reflects its fair share of moral turpitudes (a sum far greater than the short-lived Confederacy, in fact), but it also expresses a particular narrative of collective pride around country, independence, freedom, patriotism, ingenuity, and the honoring of veterans. Like any other symbol, flags have a multitude of meanings, and a culture that values freedom of speech and pluralism ought to tolerate varied and at times conflicting meanings that inhere to the same symbol. I happen to find this argument personally convincing. But if we accept it, what do we say to those Southerners who say the Confederate flag stands for Southern identity and pride? Or to those who see it as a means of memorializing soldier ancestors who died bravely on battlefields? (Remember, in every generation, frontline soldiers are drawn from the working class, not from among rich planters.) Why do we extend such open-mindedness towards one symbol but not the other?
This tendency is also present in the ongoing efforts to remove monuments to Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and accompanying reluctance to extend similar antipathies towards monuments of founding fathers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who were slave owners (serial sexual abusers in Jefferson’s case), and also traitors (who happened to win their war against foreign occupation that institutionalized white supremacy in the Constitution). Confederate leaders like Lee and Jackson were absolutely racist, but not uniquely so when measured against the pantheon of American heroes. Their martial foe Abe Lincoln, as was the case of most white men in the viciously racist mid-19th century, made execrable public statements about black people that would well warrant the removal of his likeness from our national landscape. It is sometimes illuminating to show people a selection of quotes and ask them to guess whether they were uttered by a Confederate general or Honest Abe. For instance:
“There is a physical difference between the white and black races that will forever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality.”
“There is a natural disgust in the minds of nearly all white people to the idea of indiscriminate amalgamation of the white and black races … A separation of the races is the only perfect preventive of amalgamation.”
“Inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
(Spoiler: All were said by Lincoln.)
As much as I hesitate to ever dignify any “argument” made by Donald Trump, when he semi-coherently questioned why Confederate monuments should be removed while monuments to Washington and Jefferson were left standing, he had a point: Our principles are applied differently above and below the Mason-Dixon line. Consistency would seem to demand serious consideration of dismantling or re-contextualizing racist monuments of many venerated heroes enshrined in the National Mall, even Jefferson’s lonely memorial, and on Mt. Rushmore. And yet, despite occasionally feinting at such actions, the left never actually acts upon objects of the Union’s violent, racist, white supremacist past, content to selectively raze Confederate monuments as the preferred form of atonement.
As a native northerner, I cannot suppress the sense that the removal of Southern icons is a performance of ritual purification that purges a particular type of racial shame while allowing us to maintain the abiding myth of our national exceptionalism. By making the Confederate flag the “racist one” and declaring Southern political and military leaders to be distinctly evil in type rather than degree, we effectively project the great weight of national sins onto the South. In doing so, we obfuscate the imperialist and genocidal past associated with American empire. Every well-meaning liberal who tries to mount an argument for how Washington, Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and other enshrined Union heroes are “different” is ipso facto engaged in whitewashing American genocide, colonialism, white supremacy, and militarism, which seems a far greater transgression than mere logical inconsistency.
A more reasonable assessment of objects like Confederate statues in our national landscape might start from the premise that America, from its inception, has been a racist and violent country that has produced racist and violent leaders. Such a starting-point invites an honest discussion about how and why being vested with power in this nation has led so many ostensibly intelligent and honorable people to commit, countenance, or rationalize such horrific crimes under the stars-and-stripes—a dynamic still at play today as we venerate our otherwise delightful recent ex-presidents who are guilty of outright war crimes. (George W. Bush may be fun at a frat party, but he still violated the Nuremberg Principles.) It might also allow us to advance beyond the hagiography we reserve for Union heroes who have committed grave atrocities and harbored repugnant racial beliefs (fun fact: William Tecumseh Sherman, who waged a ruthless campaign of “total war” throughout the south in his “March to the Sea,” has a massive golden 24-foot statue in New York City that is regularly “re-gilded” at a cost of hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars; because, hey, he’s our war criminal!)
Furthermore, the practice of slavery is not unique to the Confederacy and, in fact, remains part of our national and international landscape today. Most conspicuously, the practice is codified in the Union’s Thirteenth Amendment, which provides a loophole for the forced servitude of prisoners. Hillary Clinton, the intersectionality-tweeting former Democratic candidate, proudly wrote of her support for free prisoner labor while an occupant of the Governor’s Mansion in Arkansas in the 1980s, a predilection shared by the latest corporate-backed centrist Kamala Harris. Furthermore, modern corporate supply chains serving U.S. consumers currently exploit millions of people around the world as slave laborers. Our sitting president and his children have been dogged by accusations that their apparel lines and other branded ventures like golf clubs in Dubai have involved unlawful, exploitative labor practices. This is to say nothing of recent U.S. foreign policy in Libya authored by Clinton and Barack Obama that violently overthrew Muammar Gaddafi, destabilized the country, and created the conditions for the horrific re-emergence of slavery.
I personally recognize my complicity in this awful predicament. In addition to voting for Clinton and Obama (and working for the latter’s campaign in Cleveland in 2008), I also write daily on an Apple device, drink coffee whose source I often don’t know, and work in a town called Hershey—the same Hershey that, along with Mars, Nestle, and other major chocolate-producing multi-nationals, has been implicated in child slave labor practices in West African cocoa plantations as a standard facet of their business model. As we are enmeshed in totalizing capitalist systems, none of us is entirely culpable as individual consumers (or voters) for supporting such egregious forms of abuse. But these modern practices exist on a deeply troubling scale, and it would perhaps be wiser for the left to focus more on agitating to change immoral corporate and imperialist systems that are actively subjecting living humans to forced or exploited labor.
I worry that we have grown far too accustomed to the Deep South serving as a useful means of annexing our country’s racist sins to a particular region—even while modern slavery persists, black citizens are locked in northern prisons and given longer sentences than whites convicted of similar crimes, tragically gunned down by police officers in northern streets, and sent utility bills for lead-poisoned water flowing through northern pipes. But the South is not uniquely “evil,” nor should it be portrayed as the primary locus of racism and bigotry in our national mythology.
Seen in this light, contemporary battles over Confederate iconography seem secondary to the problems of actual power structures that perpetuate income and wealth inequality, institutional and environmental racism, corporate malefaction, imperialism, and lack of opportunity. They also attack an “enemy”—poor white southerners—who are likewise affected by many of those power structures. Removing a flag from a statehouse, or toppling a statue commemorating the southern war dead is an easy, satisfying, cathartic, and ultimately superficial victory for the left. (Frankly, it’s a bit like liberals grandstanding about Trump’s latest vulgar all-caps tweet while the President’s administration destabilizes the Middle East, dismantles environmental and economic regulations, and funnels wealth upwards.)
There is a subtler point here that goes beyond our inconsistent application of principles. When we constantly attack, mock, and disparage the narratives, symbols, and icons that imbue peoples’ lives with meaning we are sure to alienate them. While liberals are admirably committed to defending representational diversity, an uncomfortable reality is that it still seems to be acceptable to punch down upon poor white folks, especially in the Deep South, or to rest comfortably on the assumption that they must be racists/bigots or (tiki) torch-bearing members of the KKK. In his latest comedy show, Dave Chappelle insightfully critiques this liberal tendency to embrace dehumanizing terms like “white trash” and “deplorable,” and how this disdain—when coupled with the failure of the Democratic party to offer anything substantive to the rural poor—produces conditions that logically give rise to the Trump phenomenon. Such analysis is far more astute (and empathetic) than anything trotted out by MSNBC or CNN these days.
Aside from the condescension attendant in our posturing towards poor white southerners, it is also the case that these folks are part of a national cohort whose life expectancy rates are dropping, due mainly to “deaths of despair” linked to suicide, drug overdose, alcohol-related liver disease, and cardiovascular disease—a trend especially concentrated in southern states like West Virginia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, and Arkansas. Globalization, neoliberal trade deals, automation and AI, lack of regulation, declining mining, foresting, and trucking industries, and myriad other factors have gutted the south of jobs—much less dignified jobs with a livable and rising wage—and the safety net in southern states has been dramatically reduced since the Clinton administration led the bipartisan assault on welfare. Lack of healthcare access and hospital shortages have led to deteriorating physical and mental well-being (those of us in healthcare know the Deep South through the unfortunate epidemiologic moniker of “The Stroke Belt,” and the region is now becoming a hotspot for poverty-driven tropical disease with conditions resembling developing nations); and unequal access to higher education and other means of betterment have fostered a sense of anomie—a toxic feeling of being left behind by the larger culture that cuts even deeper than the embattled notion of “economic anxiety.” Over 20 percent of southerners live below the poverty line. And to add insult to injury, researchers who model the economic impact of climate change are showing the Deep South will suffer disproportionately from the effects of a warming climate. It is perhaps understandable that such material conditions might—for some—foster nostalgia for the distant past and resentment at those who attack cherished symbols associated with it.
This is not to make poor white southerners out to be uniquely victimized. However, it should give us pause, if not a touch of compassion. When we smugly disdain the worldview of these folks, tag them as hopeless bigots, white supremacists, and possessors of “privilege,” and grandstand about how we’d be better off without them, we are effectively denigrating a swath of humanity that is suffering as a result of the structural poverty that the left normally interrogates head-on. And when our venal political class continually fails or refuses to offer these folks a platform that might materially improve their lives (much less uses insulting terms like “white trash,” “basket of deplorables,” and other anti-poor rhetoric cribbed directly from the rightwing playbook), or when liberal establishment figures un-ironically encourage the Democratic Party to abandon everyone besides wealthy “urbanites” and secede from the South (#Bluexit!) we are witnessing, and perhaps abetting, a profound moral failure. Worse yet, as Chappelle pointed out, this type of systemic contempt and neglect sows the seeds for the election of demagogues like Trump and virtually guarantees that the Deep South will remain deep red.
Now, in the midst of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign, it is only natural to think about how the reverend might counsel us through these tumultuous times. In reading The Radical King, Cornel West’s powerful compendium of King’s speeches earlier this year, I was shocked by how frequently the civil rights leader had spoken about class, poverty, labor, and U.S. imperialism in addition to race. King went to great lengths to emphasize the color-blind nature of economic exploitation wrought by modern capitalism; in his words: “The same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people.” In one of his last penned speeches before his tragic assassination in 1968, King wrote a stirring call-to-arms: “The dispossessed of this nation—the poor, both white and Negro—live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing…to lift the load of poverty.”
Such rhetoric carries no less moral valence today. Leftist leaders like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. have, by and large, continued to hew a position consistent with King, bearing witness to social and economic injustice and considering the full spectrum of suffering across the poor, working poor, and vulnerable—neither excluding nor scapegoating any demographic group.
We don’t have to like Confederate iconography, and we can support democratic efforts to remove or recontextualize flags, statues, street signs, and building names. But civil rights icon Andrew Young, for example, has counseled against the removal of Confederate monuments and flags on the basis that—given the despairing reality for so many poor folks in the South—we would be much better choosing substance over symbols and fighting what King famously termed the “Three Evils of Society”—racism, poverty, and militarism. Our activism and organizational efforts would be considerably more valuable if applied to building movements like the Fight for $15, organized labor, a federal jobs guarantee, voter enfranchisement, Black Lives Matter, and local and national democratic socialist campaigns. Being committed to anti-racist, egalitarian values means consistently focusing on the most serious threats to those values, rather than emphasizing the symbolic and hypocritically pointing at a convenient scapegoat.
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