Writing at Salon, Andrew O’Hehir says that the poisonous effects of white supremacy, clearly depicted in 12 Years a Slave, “endure in American politics” and were on full display during the 16-day shutdown of the federal government.
Five years before the beginning of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee – future commander of the Confederate States of America’s Army of Northern Virginia – wrote a famous letter to Franklin Pierce, the profoundly inept outgoing president. After praising Pierce for his pro-Southern policies, Lee wrote: “There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.” (That phrase was likely meant as a mild rebuke to Pierce, who may not have felt that way.)
This letter has long struck historians as significant because of its apparent paradox: A few years later, Lee would command hundreds of thousands of young men to kill and die for a cause he personally believed was immoral, a cause his great adversary, Ulysses S. Grant, would describe as “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.” Lee was of course not the first white American to be pinioned by this paradox, which was written into our Constitution, with its oblique references to “other persons” existing in certain states who were to be counted as three-fifths of a human being. Nor was he the last.
How are we to understand the Confederate battle flag waved by a demonstrator from Texas outside the White House last week? Some shutdown supporters, fearing media blowback, tried to suggest it was the work of a liberal agent provocateur, or simply a symbol of rebellious high spirits and “Southern heritage.” But the meaning of that particular flag, outside the home of our first black president, in the middle of a conflict loaded with not-so-hidden racial messaging, is not difficult to grasp. It strikes me as evidence that the heavy historical weight of slavery, and what Jimmy Carter has called the “burden of white supremacy,” has not yet been lifted. We ignore it, or agree to overlook it, at our peril.
Read Andrew O‘Hehir‘s entire piece at Salon.
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