Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Few Thoughts on the Symbolism of the Confederate Flag

I thought that I would re-post what I wrote a year and a half ago because of its relevance given the debate that again has emerged about the elimination of that symbol from public places. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Rotting Corpse of Racism That Lies Beneath Our Feet

There is that smell again, the sweet-putrid odor of something rotting.  Some people can't smell it.  It's been around them all their lives and it just seems normal.  And there are those who are aware of it, but they think it is a smell associated withpersonal freedom. These people resent being "PC - Politically Correct".  For others, they are aware of the smell as "otherness" - that is a feeling of "unfamiliarity" and "foreignness" of another's culture, race, or religion.  The smell alerts them to danger, to circle the wagons, lock the door, buy a gun for protection, or join a crowd of like-minded people in declaring war on the "others".  And, finally, there are those who smell it every minute of the day, hyper-vigilant least they fall, face-first into the rotting decay,  into harms way or even death. These are the people with a pigmented skin or other features that draw attention to their "otherness" when they step out of their home or community.

I want to talk about the reality of that rottenness that exists all around us, even when we think we have the most pristine homes and the most righteously pure thoughts in our hearts and minds. The rottenness that I am talking about is "racism".

I know that many people who live in America think that racism is a thing of the past.  The great majority of these people are white.  Recently we heard from one major political party that "racism has ended".  I have friends, family, acquaintances and fellow citizens who remind me that the rotting corpse of racism is ever-present and there is no way to avoid walking on its detritus each and every day.

Being white, I am not one of the hyper-vigilant people who thinks about the consequences of race each day. I am usually in a white community or in a social gathering where most, if not all the people around me, are white.  98% of my neighbors are white and the great majority of my friends and associates are white. But my sense of right and wrong is highly informed by a sense of empathy for others. If another person is harmed because of hate or prejudice, I feel it too.

To speak out against or to act to stop racial hatred and prejudice inevitably invites heightened social conflict, something most humans are wont to avoid.  I am a witness to the effects of the rotting corpse of racism among my family, friends, and fellow citizens almost daily.  Sometimes I say something...sometimes I do not in order to avoid social conflict.

Recently I traveled  to Virginia and Maryland, states on the mid-Atlantic coast of the USA. Historically, Virginia and Maryland were slave holding states prior to the US Civil War. Although there have been steady migrations of new residents from northern and western U.S. states and foreign countries, these states still have deep racial prejudices among the white population.  I witnessed pick-up trucks and residences with big Confederate Battle Flags flying.  They are flown for many reasons: southern priderebellion against the government, and white racial supremacy are three of the predominant reasons. Maryland and Virginia have large Black populations, 31% and 21% respectively,  many whom are the direct descendants of slaves. The affront that these flags symbolize to Black people living here cannot be underestimated.  The people who fly these flags are sending a racial statement despite their overt explanation that it is their right to free speech and rebellion.  Virginia is a state with a highly divided voting population that has resulted in Barack Obama winning the state in 2008 and in 2012 by close margins. In the aftermath of the election of a Black President by the majority of Virginians, right-wing politicians and their media have fanned fear among the white population. There are now 30 Hate Groups in Virginia tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The extreme hysteria on the right has led to a run on guns in Virginia.  In 2013, over 480,000 legal gun transactions occurred, an all-time high.

Virginia is a place full of contradictions and historically troubled race relations.   It's capital, Richmond, was the capital of the Confederate States of America during theUS Civil War. The Colony of Virginia established their first English settlement in Jamestown in 1607 on land already occupied by native peoples who lived united under the leadership of Chief Powhatan.  The English people treated these original inhabitants as an inferior race and frequently used violence to take the land,  justifying the killing of men, women, and children in their belief that they were endowed by their Creator to make the land "productive".  Slaves from Africa were first brought to Virginia to provide labor for the farms that the Englishmen established.  The English settlers needed to produce agricultural goods that would provide income and they soon found out that tobacco was a particularly good money crop when unpaid, slave labor was used to harvest and process it for sale back in England.

Thomas Jefferson, author of The Declaration of Independence
and 3rd President of the United States of America
Thomas Jefferson, among many Englishmen born and raised in Virginia, was one of many of America's great leaders and skilled writers and thinkers on the subject of oppression and individual liberty. But Thomas Jefferson owned 600 black slaves in his life and became quite wealthy because of slave-labor.  After his wife, Martha, died, Jefferson took a Black slave as his concubine with which he sired 6 children. One of the complications of race in our U.S. history was well-illustrated in the life of our 3rd President and author of the Declaration of Independence who in his private life used his slave, Sally Hemings (the mulatto sister of his wife) ,  as the object of his sexual gratification.  Prior to the American Revolution, as a young man in the House of Burgesses in Virginia, Jefferson presented resolutions to outlaw slavery, but found that he was overwhelmingly castigated by his fellow wealthy plantation owners, and never again went against the tide on the issue of slavery. Indeed, when the Royal Governor Lord Dunmore threatened to offer freedom to slaves that revolted against the colonists and then removed the gunpowder from the Williamsburg Powder magazine,  the colonists feared a slave uprising more than British reprisal. It was the Virginia Royal Governor's action more than anything else that pushed previously reluctant Virginians into supporting the American revolutionary cause and citizens of Massachusetts who had already fought two battles against the British.

Thomas Jefferson, like many of America's statesmen of the 18th and 19th century, was not an advocate of racial equality. Jefferson did not feel that the two races were equal and if slaves were freed, he believed they must be returned to Africa because Black people, in his eyes, were an inferior race, and he did not believe that the two races could live together peaceably.  It is of interest that theRepublican Party founded in the mid-19th century, was partly created in reaction to the failure of the Whig Party,  the Democratic Party and the Know Nothing Party to stop the expansion of the institution of slavery.  Many Abolitionists (those who advocated the abolition of slavery) were prominent leaders of the Republican Party, like the great leader and ex-slave, Frederick Douglass, who said"I recognize the Republican party as the sheet anchor of the colored man's political hopes and the ark of his safety." 

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)
The Republican Party of the mid-19th century had varying opinions on racial equality in America, but was united in it's platform that slavery must be ended. Most white Republicans in those days, including Abraham Lincoln, did not believe that Black people were social equals.  The Democratic Party of the 1800's was a pro-slavery party and represented Southern slave-owners interests.  The Ku Klux Klan was formed in 1865 as a reaction to theReconstruction Era in the American South.  The interests of Southern whites, the Democratic Party, and racists all found common ground in the poisonous propaganda and tactics of this organization that spread in every community of the South and influenced power and politics throughout the USA in it's numerous iterations.  

The Republican Party and the Democratic Party experienced an absolute flip-flop on the issue of racial equality and civil rights in the first few years of the 1960's.Landmark Supreme Court decisions like Brown v. Board in 1954, the escalation of opposition to racial segregation like the Freedom Riders' actions in the summer of 1961, and then the legislative agenda and accomplishments of the Democratic Party and President Lyndon B.Johnson in 1964 caused a backlash against the Democratic Party by white southerners.  The Republican Party that was in decline by this time, saw an opportunity to take political advantage of the split in the Democratic Party on race and devised a Southern Strategy to win the White House for Richard Nixon in 1968. Nixon's political strategist Kevin Phillips, in a New York Times article in 1970, explained how the implementation of a "southern strategy" was so successful:

'From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that...but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats."

Lee Atwater, a consultant to Ronald Reagan,  in a recently released interview made in 1981, spoke bluntly about how the "Southern Strategy" deliberately took advantage of Southern hostility toward Black people's equality and used code words to break white voters away from the Democratic Party:

Now this brings me to the election of our first African-American President in 2008.  I have heard people say that,  since President Obama had a 69% approval ratingby the American people at the time of his inauguration as President in 2009, race was no longer an issue in the United States. But in reality, the election of Barack Obama exasperated the rotting corpse of racism in America. 

As human beings,  our comfort level with other people is based on what they have in common with us...e.g. race, language, religion, age, occupation, economic status, neighborhood, etc.  To step out of that comfort zone is very difficult for many, especially when we live in highly homogeneous communities. Racists are hyper-aware of skin color and other ethnic differences because they do not live among or socialize with people of different races.  Most of these race-centric people know better than to state their real racist views in public (although they will in their private lives and among their peers).  Disingenuous and calculating political operatives seized upon these fears and race-centric sentiments of many white people and used rhetoric (what they call "talking points") to present the new black President (falsely) as other than American, a foreigner, not "one" of us, a Muslim, a radical socialist and so forth. They do this to re-gain power.  This has led to a Republican Party of today that is held hostage by the former Southern Democrats and other extreme political groups who give them just enough votes to win elections at the state and local level.  This is what keeps the GOP from renouncing the false and inflammatory rhetoric that destroys the unity of our people at a time of great economic and international challenges.   It is not only morally reprehensible, it has destroyed the high unity our nation had when we voted our hopes and dreams in 2008.

I went to a Martin Luther King Parade in Albuquerque yesterday.  I belong to a Chapter of the NAACP and we always have a contingent in the MLK Parade on the day before Martin Luther King, Jr's birthday each year. Sunday's parade and celebration in Civic Plaza was a beautiful and positive celebration of all races, ages, and classes. 

We celebrated the memory of Dr. King for his principled stand for social and economic justice, as well as for racial equality. We celebrated the use of non-violence, love and kindness instead of violence, hate, and hurtfulness as tools  to combat such injustices. We celebrated American principles of democracy and liberty for all.  Racists hate that we celebrate Martin Luther King. Jr.'s birthday.  They make nasty comments and mock the life of Dr. as they did in the 1960's.   Many of these same people will talk about how they are outraged by terrorism.  They applaud loudly when our politicians talk about The War on Terror and they stand in reverent attention for our soldiers who are on the front lines of that fight.  They cry when innocent people are killed in horrific bombings and attacks on peoples' homes and businesses.  Why do they not understand that Dr. King was one of our greatest leaders battling terrorism in America and that he gave his life for that cause?  To truly understand the impact that Dr. King had on African American lives in America, please look at HamdenRice's post on "Most of You Have No Idea What Martin Luther King Did".

It is time for each one of us to pick up a shovel and toss a load of dirt on the rotting corpse that lies beneath our feet...bury the stinking carcass of racism for good.  Do it for yourself and for the salvation of America.


  1. An excellent piece, Vicki. Not only thorough and informative, but it also sustains a very apt and palpable metaphor. Thanks very much.

    1. Thank you, Roger. That means a lot from an English professor.

  2. A great blog post. I live and work in a melting pot of so many cultures. There are differences in our cultures but not in our hearts. We all want the same thing. A happy life for us and our children.

  3. I missed this one, Vicki. Better late than never. Very thoughtful and well written. Thank you. Ray