Ferguson and the Lingering “Floating Negro” Syndrome in America

Protestoers in Ferguson, Missouri hold up their hands and chant "Don't Shoot!"To much of white America, they're just some good ole' fashioned dangerous negroes. Photo by Lucas Jackson for Reuters.

Protesters in Ferguson, Missouri hold up their hands and chant “Don’t Shoot!” In the eyes of many white Americans, they’re just some good ole’ fashioned dangerous negroes. Photo by Lucas Jackson for Reuters.

In America, nothing is ever about race, except when it’s about race. You see, Americans have this little problem about race and historical perspective: since day-one, we’ve been wrestling over the so obvious-it’s-not-obvious paradox that stems from one of our most cherished documents proclaiming that “All Men are Created Equal” in a society where this has patently not been the case. The fact that the guy who wrote those inspiring words was a slave-owning, black concubine-schtupping product of imperialist era racialized thinking — in addition to being a brilliant statesman and enlightened political theorist — perfectly captures the mind-bending level of irony that stands at the heart of America’s experience when it comes to race. For over 2oo years, Americans have been alternating between grasping the wolf of slavery by the Ears and letting the beast go — and then trying to deal with the entailing racial consequences.

Such is the historical legacy on full display in Ferguson, Missouri in the aftermath of the August 9 shooting of eighteen year-old, unarmed black man Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson. That’s right, it matters that Brown was Black and Wilson is white. I already wrote a probably brilliant post on the Ferguson shooting, but the whole case demands an even more probably brilliant post! If you don’t think that race matters in the Ferguson case, allow me to learn ya’ a thing-or-two about why being a black person in America carries the unfortunate connotation of criminality.

What we’ve seen in Ferguson — the protests, the white police clashing with black residents, the typical claims by right-wing media outlets that “It’s not about Race!” — all invoke a historical legacy planted in American slavery and harvested during Jim Crow that identified the so-called “floating negro” as the prototypical American criminal. But before we discuss the “floating negro” syndrome, let’s briefly remind ourselves why race matters when it comes to broadly discussing crime in America — and the Ferguson case in particular. Consider, as Talking Points Memo reports, how the more scuzzy elements of the right-wing moron-o-sphere have effectively tried to legitimize Brown’s killing by tarring him as an “n-word” “negro,” “thug.”

For example, the website of noted conservative douche-canoe, David Horowitz, notes that Brown liked rap music (a black guy that likes rap music, will the shocking revelations ever cease!), that Brown was shown flashing hand-gestures that “some say are gang-signs,” and that he allegedly swiped some cheap cigars as depicted on a quick-e-mart’s security video. Plus, Brown was black. In a similar vein, the conspiracy nut-factory Worldnet Daily claims that Brown was a pot-smoker who rapped about pot-smoking, and, therefore, deserved to die. Because only black people smoke weed. And Brown was black. And that’s the real point here. Thus, when the New York Times claimed that Brown was “no angel,” that claim ignited some major controversy because the Times seemed to somehow suggest that Brown deserved to be shot dead because he was already a bit of a bad (black) seed.

But the point here isn’t that black people aren’t, and can’t be, criminals. Of course they can, and of course some of them are. No, the point is that, in American culture, blackness is automatically associated with criminality and deviance in a way that has never been the case with whiteness. To be white in America is to be American by default, but to be black in America is to be, by default, a potential criminal. What conservative media outlets — and a good chunk of white America — are harping on is the notion that Brown deserved to die because he was probably a criminal. And he was probably a criminal because he was black. But this isn’t a “natural,” “foregone” conclusion; rather, it’s a conclusion woven out of very potent historical threads that, when knitted together, created a cultural meme that associated blackness with deviance and justified constant white control over supposed black criminality.

In the antebellum South, slavery wasn’t just an economic system, it was also a system of racial control that gave whites total domestic, social, and political power over blacks. But what about when the Civil War ended slavery? How did whites scheme to control blacks then? The answer eventually coalesced under the banner of Jim Crow, a system of white hegemony over black human rights that created a nation-wide racial apartheid that was strongest in the South, where the legacy of slavery especially poisoned black-white social relations.

Officer Darren Wilson (left) the cop who shot Mike Brown (right). And so, the American racial saga continues.

Officer Darren Wilson (left) the cop who shot Mike Brown (right). And so, the American racial saga continues.

The most dangerous form of racial control in the Jim Crow South came in the form of lynching: an extra-legal form of law enforcement. And what so-often justified this form of illegal rough justice, you may ask? The answer was pretty straightforward: blacks were criminals who needed to be controlled and punished — especially when the law failed to do just that. Lynching, then, was law-enforcement by mob-rule. This brings us now to the “floating negro” syndrome.

Early twentieth-century muckraking journalist Ray Stannard Baker coined the phrase “floating negro” in his 1905 report “What is Lynching?” Baker wanted to understand how seemingly normal, small-town Americans could be responsible for the horrors of lynching, in which blacks were tortured, hanged, mutilated, and even burned alive. Now, Baker was, in many ways, a progressive-minded social-reformer whose heart was often in the right place. But he was also a man of his time who harboured some of the same (albeit water-down) notions of black inferiority that more avowed racists wore on their sleeves. Thus, while Baker was against lynching, his explanation for why it happened rested on the kind of racially based, “blame the victim” mentality that continues to influence public debate over contemporary cases like the Ferguson shooting.

In particular, Baker identified the “Danger from the Floating Negro” as the primary explanation for why lynchings occurred:

In all the towns I visited, South as well as North, I found that this floating, worthless negro caused most of the trouble. He prowls the roads by day and by night; he steals; he makes it unsafe for women to travel alone. Sometimes he has gone to school long enough to enable him to read a little and to write his name, enough education to make him hate the hard work of the fields and aspire to better things, without giving him the determination to earn them.*

In Baker’s estimation, these violence-prone, poorly educated, sexually lascivious, lazy negroes floated aimlessly across the white American landscape, driven by little more than malice in their hearts toward the caucasian devils who kept them down. No wonder lynchings occurred. According to Baker, rough justice was the natural, if sometimes brutal, white response to a very real danger: the danger that one of these ill-tempered blacks might float into their towns and wreck criminal havoc before moving on to their next sight of debauchery:

He [the floating negro] is often under the domination of half-educated negro preachers, who sometimes make it their stock in trade to stir their followers to greater hatred of the whites. He has little or no regard for the family relations or home life, and when he commits a crime or is tired of one locality, he sets out un-encumbered to seek new fields, leaving his wife and children without the slightest compunction.*

Now, if you’ve been paying any attention to the media coverage of the Ferguson shooting, you should recognize some of the same themes as noted in Baker’s report. Mike Brown wasn’t lynched in the traditional sense, but he did feel the same brunt of racially motivated justice that fueled both the legal and extra-legal application of the law for much of U.S. history.

The floating negro who is “under the domination of half-educated negro preachers, who sometimes make it their stock in trade to stir their followers to greater hatred of the whites?” Enter the far-right publication the New American, which launched a standard conservative criticism of black preachers like Rev. Al Sharpton, whom it called a “notorious racist agitator” who went to Ferguson “to add his own incendiary remarks to the volatile mix.” A “worthless negro” who “steals” and “prowls the roads by day and by night?” Enter John Lott of the right-wing Daily Caller, who claims that “Michael Brown looks more like a thug, not an innocent victim.” And while Lott acknowledges that, “Black pepole [sic] have legitimate historical grievances over how they have been treated by police,” he ultimately asserts that “the main problem facing the black community is black-on-black crime.”

Ray Stannard Baker, the journalist who identified the "floating negro" as the cause of white-on-black violence.i

Ray Stannard Baker, the journalist who identified the “floating negro” as the cause of Jim Crow-era white-on-black violence.

It really doesn’t matter if any of the above criticisms of the shooting of Michael Brown stem from any inherent racist attitudes. As sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva notes in his book, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, white people in America often claim that race, as an issue, should be relegated to the past. “Most whites believe that if blacks and other minorities would just stop thinking about the past, work hard, and complain less (particularly about racial discrimination), then Americans of all hues could ‘all get along,’ he writes”*

But Bonilla-Silva argues that it just ain’t that simple. Many whites have adopted “color-blind racism” that justifies modern racial inequality and absolves them from “any responsibility for the status of people of color.”* Color-blind racism is the kind of “soft racism” that fuels discriminatory housing, school, and employment policies. It also drives political gerrymandering schemes and voter ID laws that disproportionately affect blacks. Indeed, color-blind racism “aids in the maintenance of white privilege without fanfare, without naming those who it subjects and those who it rewards.”*

Color-blind racism is deeply paternalistic, and it’s just this type of paternalistic racism that influenced Baker’s concept of the “floating negro” that still resonates in contemporary American society. Heck, it’s quite easy to imagine a Ferguson police officer bathed in the culture of racial-profiling who perceived Mike Brown and a friend as two up-to-no-good negroes “floating” down a Ferguson street. Officer Darren Wilson need not be a hood-donning racist to be affected by the cultural meme of the dangerous floating negro — he wouldn’t even be unique in that respect.

Yet, even if this wasn’t the case (since the facts are not all in on the Brown shooting), the local and national reaction to the Brown shooting reveals deeply entrenched racial divides that, in many respects, hinge on where different Americans stand on the perceived danger of Ray Stannard Baker’s “floating negro.” As long as whites continue to believe that blackness equates to criminality while refusing to understand how historical trends came together to create the “color-blind racism” that supports such a belief, more blacks will be shot, more whites will deny the existence of racism, and America will continue to alternate between holding the wolf’s ears and letting them go. Either way, we’ll keep getting bitten.

* See Christopher Waldrep, ed., Lynching in America: A History in Documents (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 186.

* See Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), 1, 2, 4.

Why (Good) History Matters: The Republican National Committee and the AP Exams

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus scowls as thinks about actually educating Americans about history.

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus scowls as he thinks about actually educating Americans about history.

Have you ever heard someone say that pursuing the liberal arts is a waste of time? Sure you have. The refrain goes something like this: Studying the liberal arts is a waste of time because you’ll never get a job with a “useless” degree in English, Art, or (gasp!) History. A few years back, for example, the estimable Forbes ran an article titled “The Ten Worst College Majors,” and, of course, almost all of them were liberal arts majors. In a similar vein, Thought Catalog troll Matt Saccaro has claimed that the liberal arts, including history and literature, should be outright removed from college in order to focus on “what matters;” namely, making lots of money.

This granite-headed attitude — that the study of the HUMAN EXPERIENCE is now pointless because it won’t make you any money — is what passes for conventional “wisdom” in modern America. And even those who aren’t calling for an outright banning of the liberal arts are trying to squelch the idea that intellectual pursuits should be liberal at all. I mean, it’s almost as if some dark, malevolent force seeks to drain Americans of their access to critical thinking skills, numb them to the beauty of art and literature, nullify their ability to understand the complex web of human history, and deprive them of the intellectual tools needed to question authority and interpret human existence as more than just an endless series of vacuous, materialistic market exchanges.

Which brings me to the Republican Party.

Recently, the odious pit of snarling Uruk-hai known as the Republican National Committee (RNC) condemned what they call a “radically revisionist” view of American history that is supposedly presented in the Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. history exams. As Talking Points Memo reports, the RNC sent an open letter to the College Board to voice their complaints about the AP’s alleged assault on American freedom, and the core point in their letter is worth quoting in full:

Instead of striving to build a ‘City upon a Hill,’ as generations of students have been taught, the colonists are portrayed as bigots who developed ‘a rigid racial hierarchy’ that was in turn derived from ‘a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority…

The new Framework continues its theme of oppression and conflict by reinterpreting Manifest Destiny from a belief that America had a mission to spread democracy and new technologies across the continent to something that ‘was built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority.’

You see the problem there? The actual story of the American past — what professional historians would call “reality” — has run afoul of the Republican Party’s simplified vision of an American experience characterized by the steady, inevitable march of freedom that benefitted EVERYBODY, dammit. If you think that the liberal arts don’t matter — if you think that history doesn’t matter — then you’re dead wrong, and the RNC’s complaints against the AP History exam demonstrate exactly why you’re wrong. To quote the esteemed scholar Dr. Emmett L. Brown, the critical study of history helps us “to gain a clear perception of humanity — where we’ve been, where we’re going, the pitfalls and the possibilities, the perils and the promise — perhaps even an answer to that universal question, ‘Why?'” The Republican Party knows that those with the authority to interpret the “why” of U.S. history also wield enormous influence over how the general population understands what they can expect from American citizenship.

Conservatives know full-well that a population deprived of the critical thought that the liberal arts provides will be a population that accepts their lot in life without question. They know that an American populace that is unaware of the real struggles that have defined U.S. history will be a populace of acquiescent drones who tacitly accept the inherent “goodness” of America and, therefore, will never think that things can ever be better than they are at any given moment. A wholly obedient citizenry lacking in critical thought will never question the Status quo; it will never challenge the unmitigated power of hierarchical employers, clergy, and state officials, and it will never demand that America consistently live up to its founding values — because an America that was manifestly destined to spread those values could never have deviated from them in the first place, right?

If the RNC has its way, all American history course will be taught by Prof. Michelle Bachmann.

If the RNC has its way, all American history courses will be taught by Prof. Michelle Bachmann.

The critical aspect of good history always revolves around that simple question, “Why?” At its core, the study of history is the study of why humans do the things they do. Historians analyze the past so that we can learn from the past, and while good scholars understand that all historical eras must be examined in their own context, they also understand that learning from the mistakes and misconceptions of our forebears is essential to interpreting how human ideologies, decision-making, prejudices, and triumphs have culminated to create and continually shape the contemporary world as we know it. Thus, if you believe (as you damn well should) that the ultimate value of studying history (and ALL of the liberal arts) is to learn how we can facilitate human flourishing via an understanding of how human freedoms have been curtailed in the past, then you should be aware of why the RNC wants to simplify and distort the very real struggles for freedom that have defined the American historical experience.

Indeed, despite Republican delusions, history doesn’t consist of mere fairy tales that detail the harrowing account of how George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, a time-traveling Lee Greenwood, and a Tyrannosaurus Rex-riding, open-carrying, tax-cutting, pro-free-market Jesus saved America from Mecha-Karl Marx and his hordes of communist, Injun, collectivist, pointy-headed liberal elitist Muslim hippies. Instead, the American past is, in part, the story of a nation that proclaimed exceptional and lofty values such as (almost) universal equality, religious pluralism, and the rejection of hereditary monarchies. The other part of the American story, however, involves the long — and often bloody — struggle between the various factions within the United States who sought to make the nation’s lofty founding values into tangible realities for real people — and the factions that opposed such advancements.

By glossing over these real historical struggles, the RNC reduces the study of history to an exercise in mindless patriotism that purports to mean everything while simultaneously meaning nothing at all. In her influential 1994 article “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum argued that a blindly patriotic approach to the world was not only antiquated, but also downright dangerous. Throughout most of their history, Nussbaum writes, Americans have given themselves a false sense of moral and political superiority that has equated “American identity and specifically American citizenship” with “a special salience in moral and political deliberation” and “a special power among the motivations to political action.”

But this type of blind patriotism, Nussbaum warns, prevents a critical examination of America’s many moral failings. “One of the greatest barriers to rational deliberation in politics is the unexamined feeling that one’s own current preferences and ways are neutral and natural,” she writes. “An education that takes national boundaries as morally salient too often reinforces this kind of irrationality, by lending to what is an accident of history a false air of moral weight and glory.” It’s precisely this “false air of moral weight and glory” that the Republican Party wants to propagate by replacing the critical examination of history with Manifest Destiny-style myth-making.

Raphael's famous 1511 frescno, the School of Athens depicts men who dedicated their lives to the Liberal Arts. What a bunch of commies.

Raphael’s famous 1511 fresco the School of Athens depicts men who dedicated their lives to the liberal arts. What a bunch of commies.

The RNC wants to claim that America has been uniquely exceptional in its relentless spreading of “freedom” in the modern era. This is tantamount to demanding that the U.S. be shielded from the necessary historical criticism that sheds light on the wrongs and misconceptions of the past so that those same wrongs and misconceptions won’t be repeated in the present and the future. The Republican vision of American Exceptionalism, therefore, ignores America’s internal struggles with racism, genocide, sexism, inequality, political corruption, and imperialism — all struggles that place America squarely within, not outside of, the broader trajectory of world history.

By ignoring the messy reality of the past, the RNC seeks to inculcate students with the notion that “America is the greatest, so don’t suggest otherwise!” But this type of thinking only conditions people to not question ANYTHING. As the eminent historian Eric Foner writes in The Story of American Freedom, U.S. history is “a tale of debates, disagreements, and struggles rather than a set of timeless categories or an evolutionary narrative toward a preordained goal.”* Indeed, “freedom” has always been a contested concept. Foner notes that, “discussions of freedom are inescapably political,” because “under almost any definition they lead directly to questions concerning how public institutions and economic and social relations affect the nature and extent of the options available to individuals.”*

Making students think that America has been exceptional — that it can do no wrong — will effectively create a compliant populace that won’t worry about how “public institutions and economic and social relations” affect “the options available to individuals.” After all, individuals who lack a solid understanding of the real struggles and conflicts that have been waged in the name of “freedom” throughout U.S. history won’t be inclined to view themselves as agents who can take part in those ongoing struggles. That is why good history matters; it’s why the liberal arts matter, and it’s why the RNC should STFU.

* See Martha Nussbaum, “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism,” Boston Review, Oct. 1, 1994.

* See Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), xiv, xix.

St. Louis Burning: Race and the Law in America

In this photo from the AP, Lesley McSpadden, the mother of slain 18 year-old Michael Brown, drops rose petals at the scene where her son was killed by a police officer. This is only the latest example of  racial tensions have always run deep when it comes to the law in America.

In this photo from the AP, Lesley McSpadden, the mother of slain 18 year-old Michael Brown, drops rose petals at the scene where her son was killed by a police officer. This is only the latest example of racial tensions have always run deep when it comes to the law in America.

To say that the application of the law in America is highly racialized is an understatement. In the eyes of many Americans, blackness is the unofficial color of criminality, and black men have long been stereotyped as a criminal class epitomized today by the image of what sociologist Kelly Welch calls the “young Black male as a violent and menacing street thug” that’s gonna come and kill whitey!! Indeed, the interconnection between race and crime in American culture is so historically ingrained — so culturally potent — that every time white police officers shoot a black man, the resulting fallout threatens to unleash a powder keg of racial anxieties that literally stretch back to the colonial era.

Thus, when it comes to crime and the law, the issue of race exists whether we want it to or not. As Welch notes in her 2007 article, “Black Criminal Stereotypes and Racial Profiling,” “perceptions about the presumed racial identity of criminals may be so ingrained in public consciousness that race does not even need to be specifically mentioned  for a connection to be made between the two because it seems that ‘talking about crime is talking about race.'”*

The ramifications of this fact are currently on full display in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. On Saturday, August 9, Ferguson police officers shot and killed an unarmed, eighteen year-old black man named Michael Brown. As always in such cases, reports of what actually happened are conflicting. A friend of Brown’s claims that the police treated Brown belligerently, ordering him to “get the fuck off the sidewalk,” after which an altercation ensued and Brown tried to flee the scene, only to be shot by the officers. By contrast, the officers claim that Brown assaulted them, and that after a struggle during which Brown tried to take their guns, they fired on him in self-defense.

But whatever happened, the fact that even the police admit that Brown was unarmed has brought long-standing racial tensions to a boiling point in Ferguson, and the resulting anger has resulted in multiple days of neighborhood protests and a rash of rioting and looting of store fronts that have turned Ferguson into a de-facto war zone. Using language that echoes the outrage following the Trayvon Martin verdict — which allowed pudgy, would-be Batman George Zimmerman to walk free — protesters have demanded justice for Brown, whom they believe was racially profiled and killed by white police officers who simply assumed that Brown was a potential criminal. Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, maintains that her son was a good-natured individual who had just graduated high school and was preparing to attend local Vatterott College. She and the protesters believe that Brown was killed for the “crime” of being black.

Brown’s killing has sparked national attention, even resulting in the Twitter hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, in which black Americans have been posting dueling, side-by-side “good” and “bad” pictures of themselves to bring attention to the news media’s tendency towards portraying blacks in a criminal or “thuggish” light. Incidents like the Brown killing inspire a rash of strong feelings precisely because they are the product of an American tradition that has historically linked crime to blackness.

Throughout American history, being black quite simply meant that you could be punished more harshly for crime than a white person could. During the colonial era, when the southern American colonies developed into full-blown slaveholding societies from the seventeenth century onward, slaveholders deemed it necessary to sternly punish black slaves to deter individual acts of defiance as well as wholesale slave rebellion. Separate penal codes were enacted for slaves that permitted extracting confessions by torture, and blacks were sentenced to death much more frequently than whites. And colonial slave punishment was brutal: whipping, castration, branding, and amputations were common. The race-conscious makeup of colonial criminal justice set clear patterns for the future racialization of American justice.

Michael Brown, the victim of a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.

Michael Brown, the victim of a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.

During the nineteenth century, as slavery spread further west and became the most important bedrock of the southern economic and social system, deviance and criminality became further associated with the threat of rebellious blacks. In his book The Long, Lingering Shadow: Slavery, Race, and Law in the American Hemisphere, historian Robert Cottrol notes that, “the racial rational for slavery in a society that otherwise celebrated freedom meant that the barriers between black and white had to be made more rigid, less permeable.”* One of these ways that racial barriers were made “less permeable” was the criminalization of blackness itself.

In the antebellum South, heavily armed, all-white “slave patrols” stalked the countryside in search of potentially wayward and runaway slaves who might disobey the tenant of white supremacy. These were the forerunners of “stand-your-ground law” motivated twenty-first century vigilantes and trigger-happy cops. After the Civil War abolished slavery, southern whites sought to reinstate racial dominance over blacks by associating blackness with deviancy. Whites characterized black males especially as sexually deranged potential criminals who wanted nothing more than to kill white men and rape white women. These charges resulted in thousands of vigilante lynchings in the South and beyond. When millions of African-Americans fled the South in search of better opportunities during the Great Migration, northern prejudice coalesced to concentrate blacks into segregated urban communities that, over the decades, became sights of racial strife and rioting.

One of the worst race riots in American history occurred a mere fourteen miles away from Ferguson, Missouri in an Illinois town that, in one of those eery historical coincidences, is called East St. Louis. Many blacks fleeing the racial intolerance of the Deep South settled in the industrial city of East St. Louis hoping to find work and a better overall life. The city’s white residents resented the influx of black newcomers and, as a result, racial tensions simmered. Those tensions exploded on July 2 and 3, 1917. Following a rumor on July 1 that a black man had killed a white man, the city’s white population went berserk. Rampaging white mobs — which included police officers — looted and torched black homes and businesses. Drive-by shootings, beatings, and arson reigned for nearly a week, and the chaos got so bad the Illinois National Guard was called in to quell the violence. When the riots finally stopped, white rioters had caused three-million dollars in property damage, razed multiple neighborhoods, killed hundreds of black residents, and forced seven thousand more to flee across the Mississippi River into St. Louis.

Historian Charles Lumpkins calls the July 1917 East St. Louis race riot an “American Pogrom,” referencing how Europeans had long targeted Jewish communities for spontaneous acts of violence and property damage. “The East St. Louis pogroms were but one episode in a violent and protracted struggle by various white factions to maintain legalized racism in the South and to reconfigure white supremacy into a form appropriate for the urban industrial North,” Lumpkins writes.*

A mob stops a street car during the 1917 East St. Louis race riots.

A mob stops a street car during the 1917 East St. Louis race riots.

The situation is obviously different in the case of the Michael Brown killing, but the same tensions and racial demographics that led to the 1917 race riots are still at play in 2014, albeit in forms that reflect how race and the law interact in contemporary American society. The mass-migration of blacks to northern cities helped create the racial tensions that, over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, resulted in multiple violent altercations between whites and blacks. The subsequent rise of the black male as “menacing street thug” stereotype stems from a historical association of blackness with criminality that, when mixed with criminal statistics and race-based cultural perceptions, has combined to create a fuse that police gunshots often ignite.

As Welch writes, “blacks do account for a disproportionate amount of crime arrests and are disproportionately convicted and incarcerated.” But to claim that such statistics are clear evidence of an alleged black proclivity towards crime is a tenuous conclusion that can’t help but be clouded by centuries of historical baggage. Welch notes, for example, that “public estimates of Black criminality surpass the reality,” and that “linking race with criminality” only “fuels the practice of racial profiling by criminal justice officials.”*

We don’t yet know what really happened in Ferguson, Missouri. Obviously, black people — just like people of all shades — commit awful crimes. But if you want to know why there’s such an uproar over the police killing of an unarmed black man, and if you want to know why these incidences seem to happen enough that such uproars are now common, consider the long history that has inextricably wound race and the law together in American life.

* See Kelly Welch, “Black Criminal Stereotypes and Racial Profiling,” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 23 (Aug., 2007): 276, 286.

* See Robert J. Cottroll, The Long, Lingering Shadow: Slavery, Race, and the Law in the American Hemisphere (Athens, University of Georgia Press, 2013), 10.

* See Charles Lumpkins, American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics (Athens, Ohio University Press, 2008), 1, 8.

Why Rush Limbaugh’s Very Exceptional America is Very Bad History

Radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh, alongside his fictional horse, Liberty (yes, Liberty) fancies himself a historian, for some reason.

Radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh, alongside his fictional horse, Liberty (yes, Liberty). He fancies himself a historian, for some reason.

Sigh. Rush Limbaugh. You’re familiar with him, right? He’s a formidable natural force that once spewed forth an estimated 1.5 million metric-tons of gas into the atmosphere. Wait, that was Mt. St. Helens in 1980. But Rush isn’t far behind. Since the 1990s, Rush has been contributing heavily to global warming by emitting dangerous levels of toxic, right-wing effluvium into America’s radio waves on a daily basis — and this gas has poisoned the minds of many an impressionable, angry white guy. After all, Rush is the radio blow-hard who once compared Obamacare to slavery, and slavery is bad!! But now, El Rush-bo is focusing his plume of billowing exhaust on America’s children.

That’s right, Rush has recently authored two “history” books for kids: 2013’s Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims: Time-Travel Adventures with Exceptional Americans, and 2014’s Rush Revere and the First Patriots. Now, you’d think that no self-respecting teacher would have the stones to use these books for instructional purposes in an actual history class, but you’d be wrong. Because a teacher named Ivy from South Carolina (how shocking) recently called up Rush’s radio show to let the world know that she uses Rush’s books to teach third-graders. “[W]hat I decided to do was to use your author’s note that explains the principles of the founders in our country as a way to introduce the Civil War,” Ivy told Rush. Ho boy.

It’s the “author’s note” section of Rush’s book on the Pilgrims, which purports to explain why the “principles of the founders” led to the end of slavery, that demonstrates why Ivy the teacher is making a big mistake here — in addition to the fact that she’s using a book by Rush Limbaugh to TEACH THIRD-GRADERS!

Thankfully, the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf spares me from having to read too much of Rush’s book on my own and highlights the goodies from Rush’s “author’s note,” which the king of talk-radio gas actually read on the air. The offending section reads as follows:

We live in the greatest country on earth, the United States of America. But what makes it so great? Why do some call the United States a miracle? How did we become such a tremendous country in such a short period of time? After all, the United States is less than 250 years old! I want to try to help you understand what “American Exceptionalism” and greatness is all about. It does not mean that we Americans are better than anyone else. It does not mean that there is something uniquely different about us as human beings compared to other people in the world. It does not mean that we as a country have never faced problems of our own.

American Exceptionalism and greatness means that America is special because it is different from all other countries in history. It is a land built on true freedom and individual liberty and it defends both around the world. The role of the United States is to encourage individuals to be the best that they can be, to try to improve their lives, reach their goals, and make their dreams come true. In most parts of the world, dreams never become more than dreams.

Well now, that sounds innocuous enough, don’t it?! Rush isn’t saying that America is perfect, he’s just saying it’s more perfect than everywhere else! But, as Friedersdorf notes, Rush’s embracing of American Exceptionalism allowed Ivy to explain slavery’s demise as something that was just bound to happen, gol’ darn it! “I used that as a way to introduce the Civil War because we were about to enter a discussion on the time when slavery existed in our country,” Ivy said, “but because of what you said in the book and the way that you explained the Founders’ passion for our country, it was because of that that slavery inevitably was abolished. So I felt like that would be a good way to get some conversation going.” Ho boy.

This idea really has got to go.

This idea really has got to go.

You get all that? According to Rush and teacher Ivy, slavery was abolished in the U.S. because it was destined to be abolished, because America is so great — so EXCEPTIONAL — that it was inevitable that it would eventually repent for its greatest original sin. The big problem with American Exceptionalism, however, is that takes a providential view of U.S. history by postulating that some divine or otherworldly force — usually the Christian God — has guided America’s progress from its founding to the present day. Thus, American Exceptionalism isn’t just bad history; rather, it places the United States outside of history.

Scholar Deborah Madsen has written a great book on American Exceptionalism, which I highlighted in a previous post, but her book is worth going back to in order to highlight the depth of Limbaugh’s historical delusions. Madsen defines “American Exceptionalism” as the belief that, “America and Americans are special, exceptional, because they are charged with saving the world from itself and, at the same time, America and Americans must sustain a high level of spiritual, political and moral commitment to this exceptional destiny — America must be ‘a city upon a hill’ exposed to the eyes of the world.”* The phrase “city upon a hill” is a quote from Puritan leader John Winthrop, who long ago envisioned that America was to be an exceptional Christian society that would offer a starting point for a new history in the form of a society that was free from the sins of Old Europe, and would thereby provide an example of spiritually informed enlightenment for all the world to emulate.

Thus, American Exceptionalism presents a redemptionist view of history that absolves America of its many sins by claiming that repentance for those sins was planned from the beginning, and that the pre-destined progress of history would attest to this inevitable redemption.

American Exceptionalism removes America from the historical path in which human decisions, mistakes, and prejudices combined with coincidences, external influences, and developments in the natural world to create very real conflict over the future. And this is why Rush Limbaugh likes American Exceptionalism, because it replaces human agency with a historical trajectory that was predestined and/or guided by providence — a trajectory that sits in stark contrast with the reality of how real, flawed human behavior shaped the course of American history. Above all else, American Exceptionalism is SIMPLE.

But, of course, history is never simple, and there was nothing at all inevitable about slavery’s demise. After all, slavery was enshrined in the U.S Constitution. Contrary to Limbaugh’s claim that “the Founders of this phenomenal country believed all people were born to be free as individuals,” the Constitution only counted black people as a decidedly unequal three-fifths of a person. This was because the humans who designed the Constitution — particularly the southern delegates to the Constitutional Convention — designed it to protect slavery.

The eventual end of slavery in America was, therefore, the result of decades of fervent agitation by people of faith, courageous politicians (yes, they have existed), and the slaves themselves who fought bitterly to correct the Founders’ great sin. Anti-slavery forces in America endured decades of virulent and bloody opposition to their stance, and when the kettle finally boiled over in 1861 and the U.S. descended into Civil War over the slavery issue, there was still nothing inevitable about the institution’s demise. Had the Confederacy won the war, slavery would have existed and thrived for an inestimable amount of time.

Dead soldiers after the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863. There was nothing exceptional about full-scale war.

Dead soldiers after the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863. There was nothing exceptional about full-scale war.

Nothing about the Civil War — when it happened, why it happened, why it happened the way that it did — was inevitable or guided by providence. The Civil War, like all events in American history, was the product of specific human actions and decision-making. The fact that a nation ostensibly dedicated to the ideal that “all men are created equal” had to fight a four-year-long war and sacrifice the lives of 600,000 soldiers over the right to perpetuate the enslavement of other human beings demonstrates the very real limits of America’s ability to be exceptional. To quote the late historian/novelist Shelby Foote, “we think that we are a wholly superior people — if we’d been anything like as superior as we think we are, we would not have fought that war.”

American Exceptionalism is bad history because it blinds people to the very real — and very human — triumphs and tragedies that the U.S. has faced in its relatively short national lifespan. Rush Limbaugh and his ilk do us no favors by trying to simplify and overly moralize the events of the American past, because doing so robs us of the chance to actually LEARN from that past. Viewing the U.S. as uniquely exceptional makes it hard to examine with a critical eye what America has done wrong as well as what it has done right. If we make simplistic assumptions about the inevitable, inherent goodness of America, then we run the risk of underestimating the real evils that have existed — and continue to exist — in American society, and we run the risk of failing to address those evils before they grow.

Today, it’s common for Americans to look back on the century-long debate over slavery and ask why it took so long for the U.S. to eradicate such a conspicuous evil. But many Americans thought that slavery was an American institution and thus, an inherently good institution that was worth holding on to. After all, America was exceptional.

* See Deborah L. Madsen, American Exceptionalism (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998), 2-4.

The Triumph and Tragedy of American Whiteness

Angry white people protest school integration in Little |rock, Arkansas, 1959. That guy in the middle of the photo gets the award for angriest white dude EVER.

Some pissed-off white people protest school integration in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1959. That guy in the middle of the photo gets the award for angriest white dude EVER.

Let’s all shed a tear for the untimely and tragic demise of American whiteness. No, I’m serious. At no time in history have those-of-the-pasty-complexion had it so bad. It’s almost as if they’re on the brink of losing their sacred, inalienable rights to reap the best social, economic, and cultural goodies just because they’re melanin-challenged. To quote one of the most famous of all white philosophers, “this aggression will not stand, man!”

I mean, just look around you! White peoples’ percentage of the electorate is shrinking fast; their standard-bearer lost the presidency to a communist-socialist-Kenyan-Muslim-Buddhist-Podiatrist-usurper in the 2012 election, and perhaps worst of all: white people can’t even hold their annual “White History Month” parade in the proud American small town of Hope Mills, North Carolina without fear of being criticized by dusky people who just don’t know their place, dammit.

But thankfully, some heroic white people are standing up, walking tall, and vowing not to relinquish their white privilege without a (white) fight. One of these alabaster Argonauts is even a member of Congress. That’s right, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Obviousville Alabama) recently went on Laura Ingraham’s radio show to respond to an accusation by political-pundit/stable boy, Ron Fournier, who claimed that the Republican Party “cannot be the party of the future beyond November” because they’re “seen as the party of white people.” Well just you wait and see what that proud Republican congressman stated in return! “This is a part of the war on whites that’s being launched by the Democratic Party. And the way in which they’re launching this war is by claiming that whites hate everybody else,” the noble congresscritter told Ingraham. Brooks then went on to cite a bunch of issues, especially illegal (read: brown person) immigration, that he claims Democrats use as a cudgel to attack patriotic white folks everywhere.

Brooks’ comments, while amusing, are nothing new. The phenomenon of right-wingers (who are usually members of society’s most privileged social class) adopting the mantel of victimhood is one of the major pillars of conservatism. In his fantastic book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, political scientist Corey Robin notes that victimhood has long been one of the Right’s core talking-points. “The conservative, to be sure, speaks for a special type of victim,” he writes, “one who has lost something of value, as opposed to the wretched of the earth, whose chief complaint is that they never had anything to lose.”* And the sense of conservative victimhood runs deep in today’s Republican Party: a sociopolitical faction so lily-white that it has to slather itself in SPF 300 sunscreen just to pass anti-Obamacare resolutions.

Mo Brooks’ “war-on-whites” remarks may have been off-color, but he spoke to a very real feeling shared by many conservative white Americans: a feeling that their identity as the natural, default color of American-ness is evaporating before their eyes. Consider, for example, the dire warnings of former presidential candidate, and lovable Übermensch, Pat Buchanan. “The Census Bureau has now fixed at 2041 the year when whites become a minority in a country where the Founding Fathers had restricted citizenship to ‘free white persons’ of ‘good moral character,'” Buchanan moaned in 2011. Uncle Pat then concluded that Western civilization can’t possibly survive with a slightly diminished level of white privilege. Bummer.

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Al). Damn, he's very white.

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Al). Damn, he’s very white.

But however hyperbolic their rantings are, conservative whites’ fears of their diminishing cultural status in America exist because, for the majority of U.S. history, “whiteness,” — especially white maleness — has been synonymous with privilege in the domestic, political, racial, economic, and cultural spheres of American life. Indeed, up until very recently, to be an American WAS to be exclusively white. Of course, whiteness is also inextricably connected to the cultural, religious, imperial, and racial subjugation of non-white peoples — a subjugation that fostered white privilege for centuries. This has been true throughout the whole of the modern era — the time from Columbus’ fourteenth-century arrival on New World shores to the present day.  

Now, of course, the white people who founded America gave the world some great things, such as (modern) republicanism, capitalism (to an extent, anyway), and a religious pluralism, among other boons. But the problem is that, historically, whites haven’t been too keen on sharing their privileges with non-whites. In the U.S., the most explicit white/non-white divide has been between whites and blacks. There was that whole slavery thing. That whole Reconstruction thing. That whole Jim Crow thing. That whole Civil Rights thing. That whole “Silent Majority” thing. Throw the brown Messicans’ into the mix, stir vigorously, add a dash of equal rights, and you’ve got a recipe for some serious reactionary white porridge! As Robin writes, “because his losses are recent…the conservative can credibly claim…that his goals are practical and achievable. He merely seeks to regain what is his, and the fact that he once had it — indeed, probably had it for some time — suggest that he is capable of possessing it again.”*

It’s this spirit, the promise that white privilege can be possessed once again by those who took it for granted for so long, that animates conservative white reactionaries like Alabama representative Mo Brooks. Heck, it’s no coincidence that a pasty, conservative politician from the Deep South is worried about a non-existent “war on white people.” Back in 1928, the historian Ulrich B. Phillips observed that race was “The Central Theme of Southern History,” and a major component of that theme was (and is) the fear of losing the benefits of being white. The very “essence” of southern identity, Phillips wrote, was the commitment to keeping the South “a white man’s country.” The fear of losing southern white privilege arose “as soon as the negroes became numerous enough to create a problem of race control in the interest of orderly government  and the maintenance of Caucasian civilization.”*

Thus, the locus of southern exceptionalism can be found in its historical commitment to white supremacy even when other issues splintered the region into multiple factions. Historian Ira Katznelson reiterates this point in his brilliant study, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. While he notes that white supremacy has always been national in scope, Katznelson makes clear that, “the tension that marked the relationship between racial inequality and the country’s rights-based political system based on free citizenship — an association that had vexed the American republic from its first days — was more insistent and most acute” in the South.*

The American South, where white privilege has always been a big deal.

The American South, where white privilege has always been a big deal.

Politicians like Brooks, and the people who’re swayed by his rhetoric, are following in a grand conservative tradition in which fear is cultivated to prevent the loss of long-enjoyed white privilege. Although the fires of southern race-baiting have dimmed significantly over time, their embers still create heat in the form of reactionary stances against the loss of an American identity that is white-by-default. While most persistent in the South, this fear expanded across the nation as conservatism grew in popularity over the last few decades of the twentieth century. And make no mistake: fear and whiteness are close bedfellows.

A few years back, Scientific American reported that, “conservatives are fundamentally more anxious than liberals, which may be why they typically desire stability, structure and clear answers even to complicated questions.” American conservatives are mostly white, a majority of them are in the South, and fear helps them address their anxieties by motivating them to continually impose their moral order over those who they believe threaten the “natural” stability of things. And in modern America, those who threaten this “stability” are the growing non-white populations. For the right-wing, the “war on white people” is very real, and the history of white privilege guarantees that this “war” will wage on for many more years — or at least as long as Pat Buchanan can type.

* See Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 58-9.

* See Ulrich B. Phillips, “The Central Theme of Southern History,” The American Historical Review 34 (Oct., 1928): 31.

* See Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013), 134.

The Confederacy, Slavery, and the Fog of Historical Memory

The Orginal Cabinet for the Confederate States of America. President Jefferson Davis is third from right.

The Original Cabinet for the Confederate States of America. President Jefferson Davis is third from right.

It’s the year 2014, and Americans are still in the midst of celebrating (if indeed that’s the appropriate word to use) the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Yet even after all this time, a good many aspects of the war and its legacy are difficult for some Americans to accept and process. This is especially the case regarding the central role of slavery in causing the conflict, and how the war’s losing side, the Confederacy, should be remembered. The Confederate States of America existed from 1861-1865, and the men who founded the southern nation did so for the express purpose of protecting slavery from what they alleged to be the abolitionist, pro-racial equality stances of the Republican administration of Abraham Lincoln.

Thus, the Confederacy was, at its core, a paradoxical entity: it was a slaveholders’ republic; a democracy based on white supremacy, in which the existence of black slavery explicitly contrasted with, and nurtured, white freedom.

Of course, in some respects, the Confederacy wasn’t all that different from the United States at the time. Indeed, white supremacy in its various forms was the open guiding principle of American society throughout the majority of the nation’s history, and, on some levels, still remains so today. But the Confederacy was something different still. It was a nation that tried to beat back calls for America to repent for its original sin of human bondage. In this respect, the Confederate experiment was the ultimate in conservative counter-revolutions: its government protected, and its armies fought for, the freedom for one group of people to enslave another group. Ever since the end of the Civil War, it’s this core fact that’s been hard for some Americans to take.

A case-in-point is the recent snafu over the proposed removal of Confederate flags from Washington and Lee University chapel in Virginia — the burial site of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. As Kevin Levin over at Civil War Memory notes, a group of black law students at the university understandably take offence to the preponderance of Rebel flags on the campus, and in a letter to the Board of Trustees, they demanded that the university “remove all confederate flags from its property and premises, including those flags located within Lee Chapel.” The students’ demands naturally attracted the attention of that wily group of Rebel flag-waving’ Gomer Pyles known as the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), who, of course, were not happy about this latest alleged attempt to stomp all over their Dixieland myths.

Over at Crossroads, Brookes Simpson highlights some of the dunder-headed claims made by Ben Jones, the new SCV chief of heritage operations. “It appears that those who have a very simplistic view of American history have decided that the 150th anniversary of The Civil War is the right time to demonize the Southern culture,” Jones stated. He then made the usual spiel about how America was built on slavery (a statement so uncontroversial that historians have acknowledged it for decades) and he maintains that this point somehow makes it okay to deny that the fact that the Confederacy tried to perpetuate slavery indefinitely. But Jones’ most important point comes when he invokes Martin Luther King (talk about ballsy) to claim that Americans should reconcile “by accepting our past as it is.”

But, of course, for folks like the SCV, “accepting the past as it is” is, in fact, no easy task, because doing so means recognizing and accepting the fact that the Confederacy viewed black slavery and white freedom as intimately connected: one facilitated the other. In 1860, when the Republican Party came to power under the platform of preventing slavery’s extension into the western territories — but not touching it the states where it already existed — such a platform was too much for southern Fire-Eaters to bear. Indeed, the mere HINT that Abraham Lincoln — who was elected by an exclusively northern electorate — might try to free the South’s slaves was enough to justify a new southern nation in which slavery could flourish unencumbered forever.

As secessionists in Craven County, North Carolina told Governor John W. Ellis in 1860, “the people of North Carolina have a common interest with all the slave holding states and whereas in common with them the State of North Carolina has suffered from the aggressions of the North upon the institution of slavery until the burden has become intolerable.” In order to relive this “intolerable” burden, the majority of the slave-holding southern states seceded from the Union in 1860-61. This was the cause for which Confederate armies fought, and its a cause that some modern-day Americans choose to conceal with an intentional historical fog.

In the twenty-first century, it troubles some Americans to think that their ancestors fought and died for such an odious cause. After all, America is supposed to be exceptional! America then, as now, was supposed to be the “land of the free.” How, then, could southern politicians form a new nation dedicated to protecting slavery? And how could they convince tens-of-thousands of southern whites to defend that nation to the death? The answer lies in the way black slavery legitimized white freedom in the antebellum South.

Weather we likeit or not, this flag symbolized a republic built by slaveholders to protect their human property.

Whether we like it or not, this flag symbolized a republic built by slaveholders to protect their human property.

Liberty in the antebellum South was built on slavery through the concept of “Herrenvolk Democracy” (a term derived from the German word for “master race”), which held that despite their inequality in property and status, all white men were equal in their shared racial domination over blacks. This concept offered a clear contrast between the free and unfree, as slaveholding and non-slaveholding whites alike measured their liberty against the millions of slaves that surrounded them. Poor and yeomen southern whites recognized a common kinship with planters and feared competing with blacks for land and labor in the event of slavery’s abolishment. Thus, Herrenvolk Democracy made southerners susceptible to “us vs. them” styles of political demagoguery.

And boy oh boy did the southern secessionists play the demagogue’s card in 1860. Consider the state of Texas. Its Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union makes it clear that slavery was the bedrock of what would become the new Southern nation:

Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented to become one of the Confederated Union to promote her welfare, insure domestic tranquility and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people…She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery– the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy.

But for Texas, joining the Confederacy wasn’t just about maintaining slavery; it was also about upholding the racial dominance that undermined slavery, which the non-slaveholding northern states allegedly threatened. Thus, the Texas declaration further stated that:

 [I]n this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states.

Here you see the very essence of Herrenvolk Democracy: a state in which “all white men are…entitled to equal civil and political rights,” regardless of their class or station, because “the servitude of the African race” ensured that all blacks would remain an enslaved underclass over whom whites could dominate. As historian Stephanie McCurry writes in her book Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (which EVERYONE interested in the Civil War should read), “What secessionists set out to build was something entirely new in the history of nations: a modern proslavery and antidemocratic state, dedicated to the proposition that all men were not created equal.”* White southerners in 1860 understood that their shared racial equality was bolstered by the fact that black slaves could never, under any circumstances, be their equals — the non-slaveholding states be damned.

This is why secessionist politicians argued that forming the Confederacy was a necessary bulwark against what they thought was Lincoln’s secret plans to end slavery and force racial equality on the South. They knew their audiences’ prejudices, and they played to them brilliantly. For example, in December of 1860, Stephen F. Hale, Alabama’s secession commissioner to Kentucky, told Bluegrass state governor Beriah Magoffin that, “if the policy of the Republicans is carried out…and the South submits, degradation and ruin must overwhelm alike all classes of citizens in the Southern States. The slave-holder and non-slave-holder must ultimately share the same fate — all be degraded to a position of equality with free negroes.” The key point in Hale’s letter is how “the slave-holder and non-slaveholder” alike would be threatened by slavery’s demise. Hale explained this point further when he wrote that:

Who can look upon such a picture without a shudder? What Southern man, be he slave-holder or non-slave-holder, can without indignation and horror contemplate the triumph of negro equality, and see his own sons and daughters, in the not distant future, associating with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality, and the white man stripped, by the Heaven-daring hand of fanaticism of that title to superiority over the black race which God himself has bestowed?

Stephen F. Hale, Alabama's secession commisioner to Kentucky. He made it clear that secession was to be a bulawrk against abolition and racial equality.

Stephen F. Hale, Alabama’s secession commissioner to Kentucky. He made it clear that secession was to be a bulwark against abolition and racial equality.

This was hardly an accurate description of the Republican Party’s policy in 1860, but what matters is that secessionists BELIEVED that the increased sectional power of the northern states portended not just the end of slavery, but also racial equality. Even after the South seceded from the Union, Confederates continued to invoke Herrenvolk Democracy throughout the war as a way to shore up white support for the Rebel cause. In December 1861, Confederate Brig. Gen. Felix K. Zollicoffer warned Kentuckians that the “Northern hordes” would overrun Kentucky, and that “[t]heir Government has laid heavy taxes on you to carry on this unnatural war, which is openly avowed to be to set at liberty your slaves, and the ensuing steps in which will be to put arms in their hands, and give them political and social equality with yourselves.”

In his November 1863 inaugural address to the Mississippi legislature (which begins on pg. 158 at the link), Charles Clark, the Magnolia state’s Fire-Eating Confederate governor, echoed Zollicoffer’s warnings that the North would force racial equality on the South. “Between the South and the North there is a great gulf fixed,” Clark stated, “Humbly submit yourselves to our hated foes, and they will offer you a reconstructed Constitution providing for the confiscation of your property, the immediate emancipation of your slaves and the elevation of the black race to a position of equality, aye, of superiority, that will make them your masters and rulers.” Clark claimed that only violent resistance could stave off racial armageddon. “Rather than such base submission, such ruin and dishonor, let the last of our young men die upon the field of battle,” he vowed.

When you consider how the long tradition of Herrenvolk Democracy helped construct the antebellum South’s racial order, you can see why secessionists were so threatened by any-and-all possible restrictions on slavery that might come from the Northern states. The idea that the Confederacy defined white freedom in explicit contrast to black slavery is what makes the SCV-types so defensive about the way Americans remember the legacy of the southern rebellion. The Confederate flag, as the symbol of the short-lived slaveholder’s republic, represents a nation that fought to preserve slavery and the system of racial dominance that bolstered the “peculiar institution.”

When Americans choose to remember the Confederacy by intentionally stripping it of its very ideological foundations, they are, in effect, fogging up the windows of the past with a present-day vision of what they WANT the Confederacy to be. This vision bears little resemblance to what the Confederacy actually was. This is also the reason why no amount of historical evidence that links the Confederacy to protecting slavery and white supremacy will ever convince those who have a vested interest in believing otherwise. They aren’t interested in learning about the past; rather, they’re so blinded by a belief in American (and Southern) exceptionalism that the notion that Americans once fought for slavery — the very antithesis of freedom — is an unpalatable fact that they deny at all costs.

But just remember, folks: we as Americans won’t learn anything from the past if we try to sugar-coat history with an idealized mythology. It’s better to have lived and learned than never to have learned at all.

* See Stephanie McCurry, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 1.