One particular constellation of white supremacist assumptions — centered on, though not limited to the state-sanctioned display of the Confederate battle flag — has suddenly fallen into question. So now, in order to preserve the broader framework — in which, for example, that symbol of white supremacy can be proudly preserved for private and non-state public display — a slight reorientation is in order, and was recently articulated by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley.
Given how sharply Haley broke with her previous position, and the temporizing of others around her, I do not wish to sound ungrateful or unappreciative of what she has done. There is still fierce opposition in some nearby quarters to what she has done, and she showed some degree of moral leadership when she called for state law to be quickly changed, so that the battle flag could be taken down. Yet, it’s equally clear that she has framed her argument well within the historical tradition of Southern white supremacist ideology — not in the heart of that tradition, to be sure, but still within the stifling folds of its garments.
For many people in our state the flag stands for traditions that are noble — traditions of history, of heritage, and of ancestry. The hate-filled murderer who massacred our brothers and sisters in Charleston has a sick and twisted view of the flag. In no way does he reflect the people in our state who respect and in many ways revere it. Those South Carolinians view the flag as a symbol of respect, integrity and duty. They also see it as a memorial, a way to honor ancestors who came to the service of their state during time of conflict. That is not hate. Nor is it racism.
In short, Dylann Roof messed things up for all the rest of us, so — unfortunately — things have to change. Implicitly, that’s the real bottom line. Haley continued, with a brief nod to the obvious, before hurrying on:
At the same time, for many others in South Carolina, the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past. As a state, we can survive and indeed we can thrive as we have done whilst still being home to both of those viewpoints. We do not need to declare a winner and a loser here.
And so she declared a truce — the truce of false equivalency — as the pathway forward:
We respect freedom of expression. And that for those who wish to show their respect for the flag on their private property, no one will stand in your way. But the statehouse is different. And the events of this past week call upon us to look at this in a different way.
The willingness to change is easy to grab onto and praise, but the more troubling aspects, the multiple ways in which change — not to mention simple justice — are more challenging to properly grasp, identify and name, much less come to terms with. At least three starting points can easily be identified, however. The first came from Ta-Nehisi Coates. Honing in on the underlying claim that Roof's views did not reflect those of South Carolinians more broadly, Coates quickly weighed in to say:
If the governor meant that very few of the flag’s supporters believe in mass murder, she is surely right. But on the question of whose view of the Confederate Flag is more twisted, she is almost certainly wrong.
Roof’s belief that black life had no purpose beyond subjugation is “sick and twisted” in the exact same manner as the beliefs of those who created the Confederate flag were “sick and twisted.” The Confederate flag is directly tied to the Confederate cause, and the Confederate cause was white supremacy.
This is the plain historical reality, and Coates goes on to rolls out stanza after stanza in an impressive historical litany of authoritative voices repeatedly underscoring the point, beginning with the Confederate states’ own explanations for war, starting with South Carolina, then Mississippi (which was particularly blunt: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.”), Louisiana, Alabama (“the election of Mr. Lincoln cannot be regarded otherwise than … an open declaration of war”) and Texas.
He then goes on to quote notable individuals, such as Jefferson Davis, not only affirming the centrality of slavery to the Southern cause, but elaborating on their desire to extend slaveholding into Cuba, Mexico and elsewhere, as well as propounding their belief that the equality of white men was founded on the slavery of blacks, and thus would be irrevocably lost if slavery were to be abolished. Thus, white supremacy for the South was not simply an isolated belief in the inherent superiority of whites as a race, it was the foundation for an aggressive and self-styled “progressive” worldview, a whole self-contained system of thought. The flag is inextricably linked to all of that.
As a second starting point it’s also true that the Confederate battle flag was largely a relic until it was revived in response to the Civil Rights Movement — first with Strom Thurmond’s “States Rights Party” in 1948, then with Georgia adopting a version in protest of Brown v. Board of Education in 1956, and South Carolina six years later — though, tellingly, the flag went up a year before the act authorizing it. For almost a hundred years, the South got on just fine celebrating its heritage without benefit of the flag. Indeed, the flag was raised over South Carolina as a result of the Civil War centennial celebration. This revival of interest in the flag was clearly all about renewed defiance of the federal government, which was finally being prodded into making good on the Civil War Amendments, and ensuring the full citizenship of African-Americans. Hence, today, the “heritage” the flag actually stands for is that of the 1960s, not the 1860s. Good luck with that.
A third, related point, made by Jeet Heer at the New Republic, is that the flag matters tremendously as exertion of raw power. Its reintroduction in response to the Civil Rights movement sent a clear message: “The feds might try to help you, but remember who is the boss down here. We still rule.” Flying everywhere throughout the South, it sends the constant message to black Southerners, that they are not safe, they are not in control of their own personal security, much less anything else. Whatever other stories Southern whites might tell themselves and others about the flag, this basic fact remains. Indeed, the rhetorical act of denying the flag’s white supremacist meaning only demonstrates further how completely whites control things.
Beyond these three starting points, there’s a vast terrain to explore, in terms of the white supremacist legacy the flag stands for and how it has reshaped itself over time. There are at least four key elements that any such account would have to explore. First, is the matter of white supremacy itself as a matter of organized social policy — both in terms of what it supports (slavery in one era, segregation in the next, etc.) and what it opposes (abolition, integration, “big government”) — as well as the culture it both depends upon and reproduces. Second, is the way in which white supremacy reorganizes itself from one historical regime to another, both establishing purportedly new foundations, while simultaneously reinterpreting the past.
It originally expressed itself in terms of slavery, then segregation and now largely in terms of what sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva described as “colorblind racism” in his book "Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America." Third, is the way in which white supremacy naturalizes, normalizes and moralizes itself, so as to render itself difficult to clearly identify, much less name, and fight against. Bonilla-Silva’s book has a great deal to say about this as well. Furthermore, the pretense that the battle flag represents Civil War-era heritage rather than Civil Rights-era hatred is a telling example of how this process unfolds. Fourth, is the way in which white supremacy usurps otherwise noble ideals, such bringing people together, establishing peace and harmony, promoting tolerance, etc. Haley leaned very heavily on this aspect of white supremacy in the process of pretending to reject it. So let us briefly consider each of these in turn.
First, let’s reflect on white supremacy as a matter of organized social policy. There is nothing particularly difficult for people today to look back on past forms of white supremacy and reject them. It’s easy nowadays to see slavery or segregation as evil. Even Rand Paul, defending segregation in principle, said it was a bad business decision. But what about white supremacy policies today?
While part of the impetus to remove the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina came from respect for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the long-serving, highly respected member of the South Carolina State Senate, this only scratched the surface of Pinckney’s politics, as pointed out by North Carolina NAACP leader the Rev. William Barber on Democracy Now! recently:
Reverend Pinckney, as a colleague in ministry, was not just opposed to the flag, he was opposed to the denial of Medicaid expansion, where now the majority of the state is opposing Medicaid expansion where six out of 10 black people live. He was opposed to voter suppression, voter ID in South Carolina. He was opposed to those who have celebrated the ending of the Voting Rights Act, or the gutting of Section 4, which means South Carolina is no longer a preclearance state, and the very district that he served in is vulnerable right now. He was opposed to the lack of funding for public education. He wanted to see living wages raised.
Every item Barber mentioned is felt more deeply by the black community, so it’s not hard to grasp what a true rejection of white supremacy would look like. One might say that this calls for “activist government,” but the white South was all in favor of activist government "When Affirmative Action Was White," as Ira Katznelson’s 2006 book explained. Thus, Barber continued:
So I would say to my colleagues, let’s take down the flag — to the governor — but also, let’s put together an omnibus bill in the name of the nine martyrs. And all of the things Reverend Pinckney was standing for, if we say we love him and his colleagues, let’s put all of those things in a one big omnibus bill and pass that and bring it to the funeral on Friday or Saturday, saying we will expand Medicaid to help not only black people, but poor white Southerners in South Carolina, because it’s not just the flag. Lee Atwater talked about the Southern strategy, where policy was used as a way to divide us. And if we want harmony, we have to talk about racism, not just in terms of symbol, but in the substance of policies. The flag went up to fight policies. If we’re going to bring it down, we’re also going to have to change policies, and particularly policies that create disparate impact on black, brown and poor white people.
The phrase “disparate impact,” which Barber used, is key to how white supremacy operates in the post-segregation era. It’s not that the races are treated entirely differently, only that the odds, burdens, privileges and benefits change, depending on the color of your skin. Often this happens without any conscious awareness, which is why Bonilla-Silva’s phrase, “racism without racists” is so apt. This is really not difficult to grasp — unless you’ve got a vested interest in not grasping it. In which case, welcome to the world of our second topic, the way in which white supremacy reorganizes itself from one historical regime to the next, and how
Transitions between eras are often abrupt in some respects — the swift abolition of slavery in the final years of the Civil War, for example — while taking decades to work out in other ways. In order to first establish, and then fully stabilize the segregationist era, the meaning and purpose of the Civil War itself had to be reinterpreted through a white supremacist lens. The story of how that transpired over a fifty-year period is the subject of "Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory" by David W. Blight. As I summarized in my review:
Blight explains three broad visions of Civil War memory - reconciliationist, emancipationist and white supremacist. The first was born in wartime responses to its terrible brutality, epitomized by Walt Whitman's experience of tending the wounded and dying of both sides. The second sprang not just from the war, but also from the Emancipation Proclamation and the more than 200,000 black combatants who joined the fight. The third gradually reformulated itself after the shock of military defeat, eventually dominating reconciliationist thinking by sacrificing racial reconciliation for the sake of sectional reunion.
It was not surprising that the reconciliationist view came to dominate — politically, materially, the nation needed sectional reintegration in a much more immediate way than it needed anything for its black citizens — a calculus that would eventually change over time. What’s striking is the relative ease with which the white supremacist vision came to merge with and dominate the reconciliationist view.
This is not the exception, but the rule in American history: any moves toward reconciling differences inevitably become infected with white supremacist aims — unless, of course, they are founded on them to begin with, as the case with American Colonization Society and the movement surrounding it, more on that below. A similar process has taken place with the end of segregation and the discrediting of overt racism which the norm in that era throughout the South, as well as in much of the North. This is essence of what Bonilla-Silva reveals in "Racism Without Racists": a set of beliefs has emerged with superficially broad appeal, but which harbors a “hidden” white supremacist impact. Bonilla-Silva identifies four central frames at the core of colorblind racism: "The central component of any dominant racial ideology is its frames or set paths for interpreting information," Bonilla-Silva writes. The first — and what I take to be the most significant and distinctive frame — is “abstract liberalism,” which he explains as follows:
The frame of abstract liberalism involves using ideas associated with political liberalism (e.g. "equal opportunity," the idea that force should not be used to achieve social policy) and economic liberalism (e.g., choice, individualism) in an abstract manner to explain racial matters.
What abstract liberalism hides is virtually everything having to do with history and indeed all social science, outside the narrow framework of market economics. It hides all historical inequalities, which recent research suggests persists for as long as ten generations. It also hides subconscious racial preferences, which can create intense segregation without any overt centralized coercion. But above all, it creates the illusion of some idealized social order, which blacks objecting to can be portrayed as opposing in favor of racial preferences — aka “reverse racism.” In short, the moral burden of racism past can be shifted onto them: they are the “real racists,” not whites!
The three other frames Bonilla-Silva identifies also play significant roles, but I would argue they are less specifically tied to this era alone. These are “naturalization,” which “allows whites to explain away racial phenomena by suggesting they are natural occurrences,” “cultural racism” which “relies on culturally based arguments such as ‘Mexicans do not put much emphasis on education’ or ‘blacks have too many babies’ to explain the standing of minorities in society” and “minimization of racism” which “suggests discrimination is no longer a central factor affecting minorities' life chances (‘It's better now than in the past’ or ‘There is discrimination, but there are plenty of jobs out there’).” All three of these frames have been used in past eras. For example, Booker T. Washington was a celebrated black figure precisely because he argued so powerfully that things were better than in the past, so segregation was something blacks could and should accept. Similarly, cultural racism was always part of the package in older forms of racism. But I believe Bonilla-Silva is essentially correct in identifying these a surviving frameworks as playing central roles in how racism functions in America today.
As I indicated above, not only does Bonilla-Silva’s concept of colorblind racism illuminate how white supremacy has transitioned from one formulation to another, it also shows how this new form of white supremacy “naturalizes, normalizes and moralizes itself, so as to render itself difficult to clearly identify, much less name, and fight against.” Indeed, this is the very essence of how one framework of white supremacy comes to replace another — a new framework of “common sense” emerges, responding to multiple different needs at once, most typically, a need to reject and distance society from older practices that have become indefensible, and a contrary need to retain as much of the underlying power relations as possible. The rejection of the old order may can even serve to infuse the new order with a presumption of moral rectitude, even as it maintains many of the features of the old order virtually intact. Meanwhile, those who might object can be cast as moral outsiders — even holdovers of the old order, even if they are among its most profound and strenuous critics.
This leads us directly to our fourth topic, the way in which white supremacy usurps otherwise noble ideals, such bringing people together, establishing peace and harmony, promoting tolerance and so forth. It is the very nature of social power that those with the most of it can use their power to define social reality for everybody else, and this is what white supremacist ideology has repeatedly done. Not only does white supremacy lay down the law, if conflicts arise in response, white supremacy takes the lead in naming, identifying and analyzing them, leading to proposed white supremacist solutions. On a macro scale, this is how one form of white supremacist society comes to be replaced by another — but it applies on every scale, from the lowliest parts on up to the whole.
One significant example of this can be found in the history of the American Colonization Society. It was originally founded to bring together two politically disparate groups, Northern abolitionists and Southern slaveholders, both united by the belief that free blacks faced a miserable future in America, and would be better off in Africa. This granddaddy of all “grand bargains” was laughable on its face — there hundreds of thousands of free blacks, far more than could ever be returned to Africa, even if they had all wanted to go — which most emphatically did not. But it was extremely popular with political elites, precisely because of its centrist power to “bring people together” — white people, that is. In his book, "Of One Blood: Abolitionism and the Origins of Racial Equality," historian Paul Goodman had this to say:
By 1817, African colonization had become more than a speculative idea. In the next decade, hundreds of prominent Americans--political leaders including Presidents Madison and Monroe and religious leaders in most of the large denominations, from Presbyterian Lyman Beecher of Massachusetts to Episcopalian bishop William Mead of Virginia—threw their prestige and influence behind the America Colonization Society (ACS), which established the colony of Liberia in West Africa. One of the most impressive voluntary societies of its day, the ACS boasted over two hundred state and local auxiliaries by 1830. It was quietly assisted by President Monroe and endorsed by state legislatures and the major religious denominations, as well as by an illustrious panoply of notables.
As Goodman goes on to describe, the 19th-Century abolitionist movement was born out of free blacks’ opposition to the ACS. It was precisely their unwillingness to be “reasonable” which formed the foundation of resistance which eventually spread to white abolitionists, and over a period five decades, eventually resulted in emancipation. Yet, almost up until Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation he himself continued to be a supporter of colonization — such was the power of this “centrist” white supremacist vision. In fact, the ACS lived on for almost 100 years after Lincoln’s death — it only shut down in 1964!
There are many other instances in which the cause of black freedom only advanced by refusing to be “reasonable” or to live up to some purported virtue or another. That’s because white supremacy, in one form or another, has always had such an enormous say in dictating what it meant to be “reasonable” or virtuous. And so it’s been incumbent on blacks to learn to think outside the box — to find a broader framework of understanding on which to found their moral as well as their political analysis.
This is why Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once spoke to the American Psychological Association, and came out proudly for the cause of what he called “creative maladjustment”:
I am sure that we will recognize that there are some things in our society, some things in our world, to which we should never be adjusted. There are some things concerning which we must always be maladjusted if we are to be people of good will. We must never adjust ourselves to racial discrimination and racial segregation. We must never adjust ourselves to religious bigotry. We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. We must never adjust ourselves to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence….
Thus, it may well be that our world is in dire need of a new organization, The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment.
Similarly, King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” was all about rejecting the framework of passive, superficial words of peace, moderation and restraint which the white ministers of Birmingham sought to impose on him. Here is just a small section of the wisdom it contains:
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.
I could not help myself thinking about the profound wrong-headed of “reasonable” white supremacy as I heard Nikki Haley’s speech, which is why my enthusiasm for it was so dimmed. In perhaps her most deeply typical move, she said there didn’t have to be winners and losers. Folks who love the flag and folks who despise it can all get along just fine! But, of course, that leaves the entire substantive agenda Reverend Barber spoke about dead on arrival — just as it was supposed to do. There is no real underlying intent to address and disown the evil of white supremacy. The only way that evil is faced is by projecting it onto the disowned Confederate son, Dylann Roof.
A good way to understand what’s wrong with Haley’s speech is to compare it with a speech by a quintessential white Southerner, Strom Thurmond’s son, whose speech makes no such attempt to defend the blind worship of “heritage.” Here is what South Carolina State Senator Paul Thurmond said:
I am aware of my heritage. But my appreciation for the things that my forebearers accomplished to make my life better doesn’t mean that I must believe that they always made the right decisions and, for the life of me, I will never understand how anyone could fight a civil war based, in part, on the desire to continue the practice of slavery. Think about it for just a second. Our ancestors were literally fighting to continue to keep human beings as slaves and continue the unimaginable acts that occur when someone is held against their will. I am not proud of this heritage. These practices were inhumane and were wrong, wrong, wrong.
Where Haley felt the need to comfort — even identify with — those who see the flag as a symbol of noble heritage, Paul Thurmond simply said, “I am not proud.” Simple as that. A clean break. And that, my friends, is what America needs, where white supremacy is concerned. A clean break — and then the real business of a creating a livable future for all of us can begin.