Rebels Without a Clue: Neo-Confederacy and the Ironies of White Supremacy

Published as a ZNet Commentary, June 6, 2000

“Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten…”

We Southerners are famous for wishful thinking. In fact, it’s something of a regional pastime. This should come as no surprise given our interminable heat in the summer, which leaves nearly all praying for rain to cool things down, and yet nearly none satisfied with the results of their heavenly entreaty. It also fits our history as the nucleus of the nation’s affair with white supremacy: one that heightened the desire for freedom on the part of the oppressed, as well as the wish on the part of the oppressors to cling to their advantages for as long as possible. Hoping, often against hope, has long been the name of our game. Thus, it was apt that I should read the following in my local paper:

“South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges signed legislation yesterday to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse dome, saying it was time the state ended years of racial divisions the banner has caused. ‘Today, the descendants of slaves and confederate soldiers join together in the spirit of mutual respect,’ the Democratic governor said…’This debate is over.”

As hyperbole goes, this is first rate, and like many desires of Southern folk throughout the years, it is also remarkably absurd, as the Governor well knows. The debate is far from over, and how could it be otherwise, seeing as how the flag has merely been moved from the capitol dome to a 30-foot flagpole at a monument to dead Confederates on the capitol grounds. That this is roughly equivalent to the German Parliament flying a swastika above the Bundestag, only to remove it and continue its display at a monument to fallen SS, would be obvious to white Southerners, as it is to most blacks, had we not long ago begun lying about our history. Lying in such a way as to render the comparison incomprehensible. Black Holocaust? What Black Holocaust?

While some may look upon the Confederate flag debate as a purely regional affair, I would suggest that this struggle stands as a metaphor for the larger national denial over the legacy of racism. Much as neo-Confederates exclaim, “Racist symbol? What racist symbol?” so too do white non-Southerners shout, “Racism, what racism?” whenever the broader subject comes up in discussion.

To the extent there are chapters of the Euro-supremacist League of the South in California, New York, Pennsylvania, the Midwest and throughout the Pacific Northwest, and monuments to Confederate war dead in places as non-Southern as Helena, Montana, I think it fair to say the flag and its implications are not merely the problem of me and mine.

Nor is this simply an historical debate. In fact among historians there is no debate at all: the Confederacy was first and foremost about the ownership of human beings, and the notion of white racial superiority. To wit, Alexander Stephens, the Vice-President of the Confederacy who explained: “Our government’s foundation and cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man,” and who went on to admit that slavery was “the immediate cause of the rupture and our present revolution.” Or as Robert Smith, one of the framers of the Confederate Constitution said in 1861: “We have dissolved the late Union chiefly because of the Negro quarrel.”

Not because of Northern tariffs — almost all of which had been eliminated by the time of secession — and not because of a zest for “independence” (which they sought to deny to over 40 percent of their population), nor “state’s rights” (which they were willing to trample in order to extend slavery into territories like Kansas, California and Texas), but “the Negro quarrel,” which was, let’s face it, a property dispute among thieves, seeking to continue using stolen goods.

But, says the Southern partisan, most whites didn’t own slaves: a true statement, yet one that hardly strengthens the cause, either historical or contemporary, for which they fight. For the relative poverty of most white Southerners at the time of secession, and the fact that most didn’t have a direct economic stake in maintaining the slave system, makes these same folks’ fealty to Jeff Davis and Robert E. Lee all the more bizarre. After all, the Confederate leaders were clear as to why they were fighting the war: to maintain their property interests in human chattel. So irrespective of their personal views on the question of human bondage, these piss-poor whites were in fact fighting and dying for the right of others to own a type of property: in this case, property that could be forced to work for free, thereby undercutting the wages that whites would have required as a condition of their own employment. Not too smart, and hardly something to be proud of.

And this is where the debate becomes decidedly national in its implications. For the one thing the neo-Confederate resurgence does is demonstrate the degree to which whites have been tricked into accepting the relative privileges of white supremacy, even as the consequences in absolute terms have been disastrous for most. Just as it was poor whites who had to fight and die in the rich man’s Civil War, since slave owners with twenty slaves or more could avoid service, so too has white supremacy always been about elevating the relative over the absolute: making those of European descent content to have more than them, no matter how little they may actually have.

So Southern workers, more so than in any other region resisted unionization, with the Klan leading the charge against the labor movement at a time when it was growing dramatically elsewhere. And why? First, because unions would have tended to level out wages for workers, black and white, and this would place blacks on too equal a footing for the likes of the segregated South. And secondly, because the unions were seen as “communist,” and it was the “communists” who supported race-mixing and all manner of “mongrelization.” So we accepted shittier wages, benefits, and working conditions, all to stay one step ahead of those whose presence on the bottom was the only thing to give us a sense of worth: the psychological wage of whiteness, as DuBois put it.

Many towns even shut down their high schools, thereby keeping whites undereducated, just to resist desegregation orders; and Southern lawmakers fought most militantly to limit social service and income support programs for poor folks (of all colors) because they feared that too generous a welfare state would reduce the incentive of blacks to sell labor to whites for cheap.

Sadly, we’re still living with the legacy of our shortsightedness today. Southern workers are only half as likely as others to be covered by a union contract, contributing to a multitude of problems: among them, the fact that employees here are considerably less likely to have private health insurance and our children are far less likely to have health insurance at all; or that workers earn much less than those elsewhere, even after adjusting for cost of living differentials, and that poverty rates are fifteen percent higher than the national average; or that working conditions are often less safe, contributing to the fact that Southern workers miss twice as many work days annually due to disability as the national average. These persistent realities have a historical predicate: the willingness on the part of most white Southerners to accept less, so long as there were some required to do even worse than they.

Driving in town this morning, I saw a half-dozen Confederate bumper stickers, all on beat up cars or trucks, and not even one on a BMW or Lexus, despite the fact that it was the Lexus drivers of their day who needed and wanted secession, and whipped the poor into war frenzy on behalf of “their way of life.” My favorite reads: “If I had known this would happen, I’d have picked my own cotton.” Of course, the government this young man defends with what I’m sure he considers a quite hilarious display, is one that never would have allowed him to pick the cotton, precisely because doing so would have made him too aware of the difference between himself and the elite for whom he was toiling: and that was a knowledge the planter class had to deny to white workers at all costs. So he would have been hired to “oversee” the cotton-pickers, given a taste of authority and power just sufficient to make him blind to the fact that his boss was picking his pocket too. Still is.

Yes, the flag may come down from the capitol in Columbia, but it continues flying in the occupied territory of far too many Southern minds: and the cost we pay for such indulgence is enormous. It is the heritage of suckers, and the legacy of fools.

“Look away, look away, look away, Dixieland…”

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