With the decision of Biloxi, Miss., to no longer fly the state flag, and cities across the country destroying monuments to the Confederacy, the debate about the meaning and historical significance of the Civil War has once again reared its ugly head.
Most notable among the discussions is whether white Southerners’ affinity for all things Confederate is racist or not. To help clear up any confusion, we decided to put the debate to bed by answering all the burning questions in one fell swoop.
What is the Confederacy?
The Confederate States of America began in 1860 when 11 Southern states decided that they no longer wanted to be part of America, so they took their ball (and by “ball” I mean slaves) and left, prompting the Civil War. They refer to it as “seceding,” which sounds nobler than what it really was: treason. When I was 12, I told my mother that I was no longer subject to her rules and she had no dominion over my bedroom because I was seceding from the household.
Just as the Southern states found out, it did not go well.
Why did they secede?
And ... ?
That’s it. Just slavery, although Donald Trump thinks it was because Andrew Jackson wasn’t there to negotiate a good deal on slaves.
Anyone who tells you the Civil War was about anything else is the equivalent of a Holocaust denier. History revisionists will try to tell you it was about Northern aggression, states’ rights and economic independence, but the North was aggressive about ending slavery, and the South was economically independent because it had free labor.
The only state “right” Southerners were concerned about was slavery. White people in the South believed in their right to own human beings so badly that they decided it was more important than being part of America. Ironically, the people waving Confederate flags are the same ones who rail about “patriotism” and being a true American.
But does that automatically make every Confederate symbol racist?
Yes, it does. If the entire reason for the Confederacy’s existence was to preserve the “peculiar institution” of black people as human chattel, then—by default—the symbolism also reflects that.
Even William Thompson—who designed the Confederate flag—explicitly said that its concept was grounded in white supremacy:
As a people, we are fighting to maintain the heaven ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause. … Such a flag … would soon take rank among the proudest ensigns of the nations, and be hailed by the civilized world as THE WHITE MAN’S FLAG.
What about the people who say it’s part of their Southern heritage?
As you can see, those people are either lying or they are stupid. You know what else represents Southern heritage? Every other flag and state symbol that existed before and after 1860, so why that particular flag from the five years you fought to save slavery?
Plus, they know it is offensive to the descendants of slaves. If the state of Pennsylvania wanted to honor its large population of German immigrants by flying a swastika at the Capitol, we would think that was insane, but we are cool with states celebrating Confederate Memorial Day and staging Civil War re-enactments as if they were an antiquated, redneck version of Dungeons and Dragons.
So what about the argument that the idea of slavery as racist was different then?
Therein lies the problem. Aside from the fact that by 1860, many Americans had realized that slavery was cruel—so much so that they were willing to go to war to end the practice—the people who defend monuments that celebrate white supremacy and black genocide are just like their ancestors: indignant about continuing an evil practice.
Even if their descendants didn’t think of it as evil then—we do now! Championing a bygone era that fought for human bondage is like sitting back and fondly remembering the good old days when a man could beat his wife for burning the pot roast.
Then why do white people love the Confederacy so much?
It’s the same reason 43-year-old dudes try to tell you about the time they scored 38 points in a high school basketball game, or how guys who pledged a fraternity 27 years ago will throw out their backs trying to put on impromptu step shows at the club as if they’re still in college. They have the same sickness that makes Lil’ Kim put on booty shorts and bleach her skin: a distorted, delusional self-image cemented in their glory days.
Some people stay stuck in the past because the present and future don’t look that good. 1865 was about the last time white people were really winning. Since then, they have been engaged in a bunch of diversionary tactics to try to keep the playing field from being level and keep from having to compete against the rest of America without the advantages their whiteness has endowed them with. It is the dread of staring truth and reality in the face and finding out that they are inadequate. It is fear.
So should everything having to do with the Civil War be banned?
Of course not. If we could extinguish the parts of history we didn’t like, many people would have quickly deleted Nov. 8, 2016, from their life’s DVR.
But celebrating the anguish, mistreatment and subjugation of an entire people is also distasteful. When some people see Robert E. Lee, it just reminds them of a deplorable part of American history. But imagine if your tax dollars went to maintaining a symbol of white supremacy, or if you had to see a physical representation every day that reminds you of America’s continued injustice toward your people.
But once all the monuments to and symbols of the Confederacy become shameful, how are we supposed to remember the Civil War?
The same way we remember the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, World War I, World War II and every other conflict in American history: with books. I know there are people who would rather whitewash the past and romanticize the antebellum days as Southern belles sitting on front porches sipping mint juleps, but they will have their chance.
One day the states that made up the Confederacy will stop suppressing voters and cease instituting throwback legislation like bathroom laws, segregation and gay-marriage bans. That part of the country will eventually stop trusting the people who sucker poor Caucasians into voting against their own interests by using their whiteness to make them believe that they are all on the same side. They have been bamboozled into believing that they aren’t losers—they’re winners who just haven’t won yet. Perhaps they will get tired of the late 1800s and join us in the new millennium.
Maybe one day, out of its racist stupor draped in rebel flags and white supremacist wet dreams, the South will rise again ...
Nah. Probably not.