As a son of the Deep South, in fact I have never lived more than a few months at a time anywhere except Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama and Florida, I grew up when the rebel flag was ubiquitous in white communities. I had a giant rebel belt buckle, I loved it, I liked the flag on top of the Gen. Lee. I had a rebel t shirt. Yet I had a strong dislike for Wallace and a great appreciation for Dr. King and the entire civil rights movement. I hated the KKK.
When I was about 14, I decided I was opposed to Nukes, all types. I drew a rebel flag on the cover of my composition notebook for school, but replaced each star with a white cooling tower and a red circle and line (the symbol for “ban this”). It did not occur to me that my attempt to stop one thing I considered bad was promoting something equally as bad. In fact, none of my white friends, and yes, at the time, I would have only had white friends thought to point it out to me. I never had any black friends until I went to college. And that is another thing nobody in my circle found odd. In fact, if someone had a black friend, they would have been suspect.
As my work life, my educational life, and my social life expanded, I finally made a few Black friends, and I began to be exposed to ideas that were not so all white. It was then, probably in my early twenties that I realized that my sense of white privilege was completely missing because it was all I knew. As I began to understand the black experience, academically, as an outsider, and began to realize how we had built two Americas, crisscrossing each other but rarely touching that I got a sense of racism. I began to see that the marches, the voting rights acts, integration, busing, equal housing and a million other progressive steps in the right direction were not the end of racism, but only small steps at the beginning of a long and arduous journey.
Removing the battle flag, admitting the Civil War was about the “states’ rights” to allow a white person to own a person of color. The “right” of a white man to rape a woman he held in captivity, and then to enslave his own mixed race child! This was the “just cause.” This is what the confederacy stood for. Not the grace and charm of grand mansions and white columns echoing Greek architecture.
I have a friend who wonders how the non-slave holding southerners could have been willing to support the wishes of the two percent who were slave holders. The 98% were in bondage to the 2% even more than they are today. There issues around the civil war were 2% non-slave economy related and 98% slave related.
But more importantly, the battle flag was resurrected much like the swastika in the post WW2 era to be used for the same effect. They are the same. By the way, membership in the Nazi party was never more than 7% of Germany. To me, they are the same flag, and to most of the flag wavers I grew up with they meant the same thing. Racial superiority in America could not use the Nazi flag in the 1940s because everybody hated Hitler, but calling up the spirit of the “lost just cause” of “states’ rights” with something associated with mint julips, grand ball and hoop skirts was a more genteel way to promote “White culture.”
So, I DO understand my fellow whites, especially those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 70s in the Deep South. We were lied to and not told we were living in a white privilege bubble and the Negroes that we either despised or at best held as some “Separate, but not quite equal parallel society” were being held, against their will, in a near slave condition. And the ones that broke free were not proof that the others were (and still are) free to live under the “equal justice for all” so beautifully recited by us all in our very pledge.
I recall a conversation with my late uncle back in the late 1990s. He pretty much represented the mindset of the good decent establishment southern white male. I had reached a certain degree of enlightenment, at least in my mind, and I wanted to share it with this 70+ year old gentleman how it would be better if we treated Black folks as equals. He said, “Anthony, I do treat them that way, but they are just sorry, its in their blood, they can’t help it.”
I was not shocked to hear him say this, because all my life, it was given to me like the fact that the sun comes up every morning that black folks would lie and steal and not show up for work and would slack anytime and anywhere they could. Even a good Negro would be like that if you turned your back, they couldn’t help it.
But, as a grown up, I had met and worked with and for black folks, I got to know some of them and I found out this amazing thing, some were just as I had been told, some were not, and it occurred to me that was true of white people, too. and it began to occur to me that black people were individuals, most of them were good people, some were not. often there were good reasons for folks of any color to behave badly, but no matter, 90-95% of all people of all races, religions or whatever category, are good people, who do the best they know how.
But my uncle, obviously still believed the crap they were preaching when he was young. So I prodded him a bit.
“Uncle (he was a home builder), what about he black folks that work for you?”
“Oh, they are just like the rest.”
“Do you pay them the same as the white folks that work for you?”
“I pay them a good wage.” he replied.
“But the same?” I pressed.
“I pay some of them more than some of the white folk.” I kind of doubted him but he was my uncle and not known for lying.
“For the same job?” I asked.
“Well, the black folks do concrete, and the white folks do framing and trim.” He explained. By this time, I had done a little of both concrete and framing. Concrete is brutal, framing is just good hard work. I liked framing and hated concrete.
“I pay some of my colors over $15.00 per hour (in the late 1990s in Alabama, this was a very good wage),” he said.
“And they are still sorry?” I asked.
“Oh yes, They wont show up, they don’t take care of tools, they are constantly quitting.”
“Why don’t you hire white people to do concrete?” I asked.
“White men wont do concrete.”
We finished our breakfast and I realized he could not see the obvious. Black men were sorry for not wanting to do a horrible job even for pretty good pay, but white people were not sorry, even though they would not even do the job at all for any amount my uncle thought was a fair wage. It had not and would not ever be obvious to him, that in degrees of sorry-ness, his much lauded white men, were well behind the black folk.
Now, in fairness, if the racist caste system of the south was not what it is, the black men would have all been carpenters and the cost of concrete work would have been doubled or more, because nobody wants to do it. because black folks are pretty much blocked out of the other trades, they are given the option of making a half decent living doing what they hate, and somehow, they should be more motived. This is not a story that describes all black workers, nor all white men in their 60s, and older, but it is very representative of the perspective of blindness caused by our white privilege.
So take the flag down, rename the buildings. Take down the monuments. Place the flags and monuments to the terrorism that is racism in museums, lest we forget. But do not think by doing so we have eradicated racism. Like Rosa Parks, and Dr. King and a million others before, we are taking another small step. This is a very good start to ending the hostilities that have brewed for 150 years! I am glad to see white southern conservatives joining in the fight to get rid of the hate. It gives me hope, but please do not think this is the end. It is maybe the middle or the end of the beginning.
50-70% of white folks don’t even understand that the flag is evil, that every building in America from W. A. Gayle planetarium in Montgomery, to Tillman hall on the Clemson campus (Oh, and there are plenty of northern institutions who need to clean house, too, Harvard comes to mind.) to every bridge and high school and park named for confederate generals and politicians and for those whose main claim to fame was their “defense of the white race” should be renamed. These are all small steps in the process of allowing all Americans to enjoy what we have proclaimed from the beginning is the innate right for all of us. The fight is long, the way is hard.
It is nice to stop for a moment of reflection and joy now and then, when a great tragedy moves the needle a little in the right direction, like Charleston seems to have done this past week. It would be great if little black girls didn’t have to die in a church basement in Birmingham and a bunch of sweet old ladies and good people didn’t have to be mowed down in a prayer meeting for it happen. It seems white America only seems to understand a glimpse of their collective guilt when they see innocent blood spilt on a church floor.