September 5, 2007

Racial America

I have been busy with school and reading a little on the side about Southern defenses for secession and the Civil War. I knew about them before, but had not really investigated the arguments behind it. Turns out there is a mini library of books with titles like "The South Was Right" or "The Real Lincoln." That last one is by an economist who has written other books, including one that there is a "war against capitalism." Damn straight, Comrade. We are out to rid the world of capitalism.


But back to the Southern apologia. The essence of the argument is two-fold, that secession was legal (and ergo Lincoln illegally forced the south back with the war) and that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War. Slavery, they contend, was started by the North (nice justification), and the North (including Abraham Lincoln) were more racist than the South. Yes, that is right, the clearly racist North was more racist than those in the South who actually bought and sold human beings at cattle markets, or bought the most attractive slave women for their nightly pursuits. Or rewarded their wives with the gift of not working by, you know, buying them a slave. Which anniversary is slave again?


What bothers me the most about this apologia is the constant contention that the South was morally superior and deeply religious. One even argued that the South was deeply committed to orthodox Christianity. That worked out so very well, didn't it? Sure, they might have defended slavery, or owned slaves, or threatened abolitionists, but they did so with the spirit of the Lord.


And after the Civil War, even if it was illegal for Lincoln to bring the South back, good Southern Christians might have turned to the freedmen (after all, the apologia says that most didn't own slaves) and extended grace and acceptance, right? Nope. They turned first to the Black Codes restricting black employment options and even occupations, and often forcing them into contracts with their old owners. Then, after Reconstruction forced them to recognize the civil rights of the freedmen, they turned to the Klan and other "social clubs" for a good old Christian "reign of terror."

We think we have come so very far. And we have in so many ways. I am reminded of the conservative efforts to gut the Voting Rights act, because those were issues of the past. (Hell, after Bushco and Diebold, I think we need to expand the Voting Rights act to include, well, all of us who aren't Republican operatives). But then there is this story of the Jena 6. You can read more there, but the gist is that the high school at this heavily segregated community in Louisiana had a tree where only white students congregated. A black student requested (last fall) to sit under that tree and the administration told him to sit whereever he wanted. But when he and other black students did, they found three nooses--all in school colors--dangling from the tree. Those white students were suspended, but the superintendent intervened and called the nooses "a prank."

Racial tensions flared with white students beating a black student. A white man held a shotgun on black kids. The man was never charged. A white student racially taunts the black kid who was beaten, and is beaten in return himself. His wounds are superficial and he attends a party that night. But the six kids are charged with attempted second-degree murder.
Six Black Jena students (Mychal Bell, Robert Bailey Jr., Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, Theo Shaw and Jesse Beard) were subsequently arrested and charged with attempted second degree murder. All six were expelled from school. On the morning of the trial, the District Attorney reduced the charges from attempted second degree murder to second degree aggravated battery and conspiracy.

The all-white jury deliberated for less than three hours and found Mychal Bell, the only one charged as an adult, guilty on the maximum possible charges of aggravated second degree battery and conspiracy. He awaits a Sept. 20 sentencing hearing. Mychal Bell faces up to a maximum of 22 years in prison. The cases against the other five Black students are pending.

This is the Southern culture that I am supposed to applaud? Or can we simply blame this on the North as well?

12 comments: said...

Here's a thought: I wonder if there might be a cross-section of people who believe that secession was legal and also support the phrase "under God" in the pledge . . . all the while missing the "indivisible" part that follows.

Streak said...

Never thought about that. What an interesting idea.

For some reason that reminds me of a scene in the Simpsons (CIL, help me out here) where a Southern gentlemen objects to mistreatment of the American flag with the statement, "that is the flag my forefathers fought against."

steve s said...

I think this is a fascinating topic and one that I do not understand very well. I know several intelligent southerners that seem to be pro-Confederacy. While I am sympathetic to the cause of state's rights and do believe that we have consolidated too much power in the federal government, I just don't see how you can separate slavery from any discussion on secession. It would be somewhat different if we were talking about a regime that existed thousands of years ago when slavery was more common, but by the mid 19th century, the majority of the world saw slavery as being wrong.

There seems to be strong urge to romanticize the Confederacy that I just do not understand.

Bootleg Blogger said...

Streak- it seems to me you've got several threads here- slavery, causes of the civil war, and modern racism. I'm not saying they're not related- just that each is pretty involved on their own. A number of thoughts come to mind that due to time I'll try to give as soundbites-

- the north was racist. I think that's probably true. Believing slavery to be wrong and believing that races are equal or should mix are not necessarily hand in hand.
- the north was racist- so what? Racism is, in my opinion, just about a given during this time in history. We're talking about whether or not people are property- not whether or not there was racial harmony. Is there some line of thinking that the north was some racial utopia that needs to be debunked? They had at least progressed to the point that people weren't PROPERTY.
- Lincoln wasn't perfect. What a revelation! I consider this a "non-point". I guess the unspoken part is, "My great granddaddy may have owned slaves but he was a better man than Lincoln." Give me a break.
- "What bothers me the most about this apologia is the constant contention that the South was morally superior and deeply religious." Hmmm, funny advertisement: "Hey, our economy and way of life was based on owning other people and breeding and trading them like cattle. But, hey, we were more religious than the other guys." From where I'm standing you probably need to ditch that religion, or at least your version of it. Sounds like it's carrying you straight to hell!


Nicole said...

Oh boy, how does this Southern-bred woman explain the contentious past of her home? I am not sure I can, but I do think that I can add some new info to this discussion.

First, I want to explicitly state that I'm not a confederate loyalist. I'd rather die than have the "so-called" confederate flag associated with anything I touch (although what we all know as the confederate flag actually wasn't the flag that was used historically). I was brought up being taught about the 'War of Northern Aggression' (their words not mine), took a History of the South course that seemed very fair by a leading historian in college (Hi, Dr. Bruce Wheeler!), and well, let’s say my family is proud of their history. Harry T. Burn is from my home town. Look him up. Go ahead, do it.

However, I do think there are some important things about Southern culture that inform how we think about the Civil War and its causes and consequences.

You have to remember that the majority of southerners were poor. Most people did not own slaves, but the elite few who ran society owned slaves. The plantation and business owners had slaves, but your common everyday person did not. That doesn't absolve their complicity and their own overt racism, but the American South was and continues to be working class in its values, especially away from its urban areas. There were MORE reasons than simply slavery that contributed to the Civil War. Slavery should have been enough of a reason for a war, and it was for the Northerner. However, the average person barely scraping by knew that war would collapse their already meager chances of survival. And the war was brutal to families who had nothing to do with the war or slavery, or who were even supportive of the Union. It ravaged their land, their economy, and tore apart families. That’s a hard sell for people who were struggling. I am not saying that was the right choice, but just stating why they likely made that choice.

There were important financial reasons for why the North wanted to abolish slavery. Many business owners profited from the reconstruction in very nefarious ways, similar to how our American business are profiting for the war in Iraq. War is a business, and an ugly one. The North wasn’t pure in it’s motivations. Both sides were muddy. Abolishing slavery was the right thing to do, but if we ignore the less than noble motivations of the North in the face of the noble ones, we lose important history.

Speaking of "The South" as one common cultural experience is a bit misleading. Cultural experiences within the South are very diverse. You have the Deep South: Memphis, Mobile, Savannah. This is where you found your plantations, and therefore slaves, and therefore higher African American populations today. However, you also have the Appalachian South: East Tennessee, North Carolina. This area where I'm from was more poor farmers, industrial workers, etc. It's significant that Knoxville refused to take up arms during the war and was occupied by the Union Army.

Then you have the Coast South: South Carolina, Virginia. I know less about this part, but these places seem to be a mix of the plantation/slave owner economy and extremely rural people for whom slave owning was akin to the indentured servanthood that they themselves were enslaved to. Louisiana: A culture in and of itself. Florida: Is that really in the south? It’s so full of Northerners now that who could tell. ;)

The Southern apologia you’ve been reading IS mostly rubbish. But I think that there’s a large reaction to “all you Yankees” is that a secondary result of the Civil War is that the South has been lampooned. There are many great things about Southern culture, a simplicity and slowness that does lend itself to a spiritual life in keeping with Christian principles, a friendliness and way of doing community that can be outstanding. However, there is a strong bias in general culture that assumes that those of us with a Southern accent are less intelligent and less informed. That we all live shoeless and toothless as racist bigots in our churches full of white people. Oh, that is true in many places. But it’s no more true, in general, than all the stereotypes of any geographical or cultural group.

So all of those among us who are ignorant racists have jumped on the bandwagon of defending what they know of Southern culture. And what they know is not the rich literature, of the hardworking values, or the ideas of hospitality to the least of these, helping out anyone who needs it. Nope, what they know is the confederate flag, that Yankees are bad, and that black boys don’t sit with white boys at lunch and they sure as hell don’t date their sisters. It’s inexcusable, and it ties back to all of that bullshit apologia.

However, let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. There are many things wrong with Southern culture. But, there are many many things wrong with Northern culture. (Sorry, you’re all northerners. I’d never actually heard of the “Midwest” until I moved here. Gah, sorry, I can’t help what I was taught, just what I do with it).

Every culture has its institutional sins. The South’s are more evident and more reported on, and more attributed to geography when sometimes it’s just pure ignorance and bigotry not related to where it happens. However, how the Union treated and mistreated the South following the Civil War I believe contributed to this rabid defense of the worst of Southern culture and this racist acting out by southerners. So, yes, we all share a responsibility.

And don’t get me started on the cultural implications of cultural Christianity. But I think Evangelicals are guilty of that regardless of location. Southerners just perfected it in its worst possible way, first. Anyone who claims that racism is a part of being a Christian, well, they deserve to be hanged.

I know this is muddled and long, and I’m not saying your criticisms are wrong. I’m just saying that Southern culture is more complex than South=Racist=Bad.

Streak said...

Hmm, Nicole, thanks for your response. Let me address at least a few things tonight and maybe more later.

1st, I really understand the frustration with the lampooning of Southern culture. I hope you know that I never intended to bash all of the South.

2nd, my angry rant was more aimed at the apologists who downplay everything bad about the South and blame all bad things on the North.

3rd, I also am very aware about the problems of the north, and begin my lectures on the Civil War talking about Northern racism. I talk about how Northerners were largely annoyed by abolitionists and largely unmoved about slavery--mostly, and as you note, because they were at some level complicit. They might not traffic in slaves, but they were glad to buy slave grown goods. I also talk about Lincoln's racism and the clear sense that Northerners may have grown to dislike Slavery, but they had no interest in living with freed slaves and wanted to send them back to Africa.

In fact, I am actually not convinced that Northerners fought to free slaves--except those who were in the abolitionists movements, but grew finally to dislike the South.

I really never meant to imply that the South=bad or that the South=racist. I completely agree that racism is an American problem, not a Southern problem, but was more responding to the apologia that we both reject.

I think I will ask you to say more about the years following the Civil War and how that Reconstruction unfolded. But maybe that will wait for another day.

Thanks for taking the time to respond, Nicole. I really do appreciate it. And I sincerely apologize if it sounded like I was bashing all Southerners. I think parts of my family came through the South. One of my distant relatives (we think) told me about his family growing up in Alabama's hill country where they sided with the North. We got a chuckle out of thinking of some Northern version of our family fighting for the South simply out of spite. :)

More later.

leighton said...

Out of curiosity, to what extent are OK and TX part of the South? Or what subsection of the South? Until last month I spent my entire life on the west coast, and people out there are a bit fuzzy on those kinds of details.

Streak said...

Ah, Leighton, you have hit on a long standing argument among geographers, historians, and denizens of both states. Depending on who you talk to, people will claim that Texas is A) southern, B) Western, C) SouthWestern, or D) a whole other country.

With Oklahoma, it is either Southern, Western, or Midwestern. Each state, as far as I can tell have regions that fit all of the possible tags.

Dallas Tim said...

I really depends on what part of Texas your in. In the DFW metroplex, you're "up north." Then you have the border area (Mexico) that is definitely the "deep south." Midwest would be Abilene, Odessa, Midland. We also have a panhandle and the eastern "Piney Woods."

From what I understand (28th Congress of the United States, Session II, No. 8 Joint Res. for Annexing Texas to the U.S., 1 March 1845) Texas can also break off and introduce itself into 4 new states which the U.S. government will be obliged to recognize.

If that happens, we'll have to re-figure who gets what.

Streak said...

That is true, when I lived in Houston, some of the people I knew referred to anyone who lived north of Huntsville as "yankees." Of course, those people were idiots.

Yes, I do remember that Texas can partition itself into four smaller, less arrogant states, but don't think they have the right to secede as Texas v. White (1869) (I think) ruled.

Though, when it comes to secession, I have argued that we should return Texas to Mexico for years.


Dallas Tim said...

"...Though, when it comes to secession, I have argued that we should return Texas to Mexico for years."

Really? Or are you just saying that as an excuse to build the border fence along the Red River?

Double :)

Nicole said...


Gee, you sound like you might know your history. ;)

No worries, my friend. I didn't take it as you blaming the south or making some perfunctory diagnosis of the American South.

However, I wish most of the (even educated) world knew more about the Civil War besides the horrible distillation that most people learn. It is largely inaccurate and biased against the South, in particular. It's important (and I know that you know this) to remember that those who win the war get to write the history books afterward.

I'm glad that there are professors like you teaching students the context of the Civil War and not the prettied up version that is in the history books.

I at once, like most people, both love and hate my origins. I long for the South when I am away, and feel constrained by it when I am there. I don't know if I'll ever escape that. Being a woman adds a whole new dimension to that struggle.

Oh, and Oklahoma is in what I'd call the "Heartland" along with all the square states where they grow corn. ;) And Texas is...Texas. It is really like it's own country. One good rule of thumb, if they don't serve sweet tea, it ain't the South, ya'll.