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The Fight Over Removing Confederate Symbols Will Go On

Dylann Roof wanted to start a race war when he killed nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Instead, he launched a movement to mothball Confederate symbols.

The Charleston massacre led to the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state capitol. Many people saw it as an affront to the victims that the flag continued to fly over the state house, and the legislature voted to remove it. Controversy over the removal of Confederate symbols and monuments spread, and recently sparked violence in  Charlottesville, Virginia, where Nazis and white supremacists protesting the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a city park clashed with counter protestors.

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In the aftermath of Charlottesville, more states, cities, and institutions are removing Confederate monuments from their public spaces.

Approximately 1,500 Confederate symbols exist on public land, including 718 monuments and statues. “Heritage” organizations placed many of them immediately after the Civil war. Others appeared following the Supreme Court’s  “separate but equal” ruling. There were rises in monument dedications between 1900 and the 1920s when states were enacting  Jim Crow laws; and from 1950 to 1960, when the Supreme Court struck down segregation.

Removing Confederate symbols isn’t erasing or rewriting history. It’s being honest about what those symbols stand for and acknowledging that what those honored by these monuments fought for was wrong, and shouldn’t be honored. President Barack Obama stated this eloquently in his eulogy of Charleston victim Rev. Clementa Pinckney.

“Removing the flag from this state’s Capitol would not be an act of political correctness; it would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought—the cause of slavery—was wrong. The imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong,” he said. “It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history, a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.”

Past and present attempts to obscure its importance notwithstanding, the southern states seceded and went to war defend not just slavery, but the belief at the foundation of the  “peculiar institution.” As I wrote in 2015, Confederates didn’t invent slavery. They reinvented it. Slavery, as practiced in the South, was firmly rooted in white supremacy: the belief that white people are superior to people of other races and should, therefore, have the right to subjugate other races.  Confederates were unambiguous that they were defending not only slavery but white supremacy itself.

Not only did some Confederates believe that slavery was good for blacks (as do some conservatives), but it was the basis of white equality.

  • Confederate president Jefferson Davis said in a speech before the Mississippi legislature, “You too know, that among us, white men have an equality resulting form a presence of a lower caste, which cannot exist where white men fill the position here occupied by the servile race.”
  • Georgia governor Joseph E. Brown in a proclamation defending secession wrote: “Among us the poor white laborer is respected as an equal. His family is treated with kindness, consideration and respect. He does not belong to the menial class. The negro is in no sense of the term his equal. He feels and knows this. He belongs to the only true aristocracy, the race of white men.”

Even the poorest whites were invested in defending slavery because they belonged to the superior race. The poorest white man who could say contentedly to himself, “At least I’m not a nigger,” would aspire to the wealth of the plantation owners — instead of challenging the disparity between them. After all, they were both white men. The end of slavery would threaten the white supremacy that was the real foundation the “Southern way of life.”

White supremacy didn’t end along with slavery. It spawned Jim Crow and segregation. Its monuments and symbols proliferated. They are not just monuments to the Confederate “cause,” but to white supremacy itself.

The right-wing embrace of Confederate symbols grew with white anxieties about shrinking demographics and fading political and cultural primacy. They were stripped of the racial privilege that shielded them from harsh economic realities, and are losing their place at the center of American identity. Their identification with Confederate symbols reflects white conservatives’ anxiety over their place in an America that is growing less and less white. The removal of Confederate statues and symbols is almost a physical manifestation of the loss of primacy they feel — as though they are being erased from the culture.

Right now, a majority of Americans think Confederate statues should remain, but that is likely to shift along with racial demographics. The movement to remove Confederate symbols from public spaces will grow, along with the anxieties that feed the anger at their removal.

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