Tag Archives: slavery

Maybe They Just Want to Belong? Confederate History Month and the Tea Party

It’s been a really, really long time since I last posted. This time around, I hope to vastly improve on the quality of my former posts (it’s always strange looking back at opinion bits and realizing that you kind of sound like a moron…eh). I guess we’ll just see…

This is not a true “post” in the sense that any of this is meant to be coherent. Rather, just a jumble of thoughts I can’t get out of my head at 2:23am. In fact, this was originally written as a comment for an article on NY Liberal State of Mind (you might want to read this first), but I jumped over here before clicking the send…:

I’m from the South, North Carolina specifically. That may not be important to impart, but having spent the vast majority of my life in the South, I have had plenty of opportunity for observation. Having said that, I will now make a ridiculous claim.  I think I might understand, to some degree and academically, a bit of the need that white southerners feel to “honor” the Confederacy. Let me just state that I do not support, to any degree, a Confederate History Month, or any sort of dismissal of Slavery. Leaving Slavery out of the Civil War is like leaving religion out of the history of the Crusades- absurd, historically inaccurate and just, plain bad (“wrong” seems like an indictment too light). My theory, though, is this:

Essentially, I think it comes down to the sense that, as the U.S. became more mobile, as more people began moving into the Southern states and others out, the structures of the original community organizational schemes were lost and those people left behind, aka white southerners, were left feeling not a part of any particular community. A century ago, white southerners, for the most part, would have either been part of a town community filled with people they knew because there wasn’t that much mobility and they had all lived there for a fair amount of time, or they were newer to the country and perhaps still identified with their origin nationality (Irish, Germans, Italians, etc), or they were still identified with a specific Southern church community. All of these areas provided identities for those who were a part of them. Now that the organizational structures are gone, white southerners are those with power but no sense of identity or self, no greater organization into community.

When I say, “I’m Jewish,” I’m claiming a host of experiences, point of view, and history that are specific and give me a place in the world. White southerners have no label like that. Though there are those who believe that labels are generally detrimental, we all use them to self-identity and show identification with larger groups that we consider ourselves a part of. White southerners only have, for the most part, a shared geographic history. Memories of the Confederacy do remind them of a better South as long as they forget that slaves were not just there for the “paternal coddling,” but I think that behind the portion of hardcore racists, most of these people just want to be a part of something.

I see the same thing in the Tea Party. There is, of course, an element of the Tea Party movement that is legitimately racist and just afraid of the black man in the White House, but I think the majority of Tea Party members are looking to be part of a group, to belong somewhere, something we all desire. This doesn’t excuse the bad behavior by some and lack of condemnation by most, but it seems to explain, in my mind, their totally contradictory and inexplicable ‘ideology.’ The ideology isn’t what’s most important, the important part really is the party itself.

Goodnight!

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Sessions, Sotomayor, Racism, and an Anecdote

All kidding aside, Sessions appeared on Meet the Press yesterday with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy and was oddly unwilling to simply put into words whether he does or does not believe that Sonya Sotomayor is racist. Of course, the entire debate is 100% ridiculous and thus the mass participation on “is she/isn’t she” by both Republicans and Democrats is absurd, but it goes to a much deeper question that really has little to actually do with Judge Sotomayor. That is, how do we define racism in America today? Though seemingly academic in nature, the answer to this question has practical applications that go far beyond Senate Judiciary hearings.

An anecdote:

In my first semester of college, I participated in a freshman seminar called (some variation of) “Historical Memory and Slavery of the American South” taught by a young, but brilliant professor named Seth Rockman. Having literally just moved from my home in North Carolina to Providence, Rhode Island to attend one of the country’s most liberal universities, I was unsure how I would fare in a course meant to confront America’s Master Narrative head on.

It was, for all intents and purposes, the worst academic showing of my life. I remember distinctly the first time that Professor Rockman explained to us that reverse-racism is an impossibility, according to his school of thought, as racism relies on a superficial power construct, ie what has been the inherent position of power held by the white community as opposed to communities of other ethnicities. The more powerful (in this case white men) cannot be marginalized through racism by the less powerful (everybody else, but in Rockman’s specific example African-Americans), because the entire racial construct was created by white men to explain the relationship between themselves and all of the “others.”*

At first, I was entirely unable to comprehend this concept in a way that kept me from being incredibly offended at the apparent inequality, but after weeks of argument I reconciled that perhaps the problem with so-called reverse-racism really is about the semantics. As in, when a white person says something offensive to a black person pertaining to their race it’s called racism, but if a black person says something racially offensive to a white person, though perhaps hurtful and unacceptable, it isn’t referred to as racism because calling it so ignores the inherent power dynamics that define what racism is. Words have certain meanings, and racism has a historically specific and significant one. 

It has been a few years since I took that class, and I’d like to think that my ideas and reasoning on the subject have matured and become more nuanced (I suspect that the Professor and I have much to agree upon now), but even as I was the lone student arguing for the possibility of reverse-racism (a concept I reject after much further study), I managed to learn an important lesson from Professor Rockman: the words we use, how we define things, and the version of history we choose to tell all matter

I hated Rockman back then. I thought he was too liberal, too empathetic, and too blind to reality. But he was right.

Oh, and if I ever run into Professor Rockman, I’ll have to inform him that after writing  a (not very good) paper for his seminar tearing apart William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner  for being the MOST AWFUL, RACIST tome ever, I proceeded to bookend my college career by writing my final senior year seminar paper for a Gordon Wood class (entitled “The Practice of History”) on the very same book. My conclusions four years later were starkly different.

* I have vastly oversimplified this point. There is much to be read on the subject.

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