At the age of eight, I watched my entire hometown transform into a battleground over race, history and the Confederacy. My public high school, for years, had flown the “rebel flag,” as its administrators, teachers and students called it, as part of its logo, at football rallies, and in its public imagery. Thornton Fractional South, of Lansing, Illinois, was arch rivals with Thornton Fractional North, of Calumet City, and adopted an embarrassing secessionist as its mascot and franchise name. “Richie Rebel,” a Confederate soldier with the stereotypical Civil War mustache, and a Confederate flag and uniform, waved his sword in the threat and promise of gridiron conquest.
Lansing, a middle class, small town of 30,000, is located 25 miles south of Chicago – not exactly fertile ground for slave plantations in the nineteenth century. It was not malevolence or bigotry that inspired celebration of Confederate symbolism at TF South, but a byproduct of white privilege density. Throughout its entire history, Lansing had an almost entirely white population. The severity of its obtuse provincialism prevented most residents from even contemplating that a descendant of slaves might find the flying of the banner most associated with slavery as not only bizarre, given the school’s Union location, but also a violation of their own claim on the community.
Lansing began to diversify in the 1990s. On my own street, a few neighbors grew uncomfortable when a Latino family bought a house put on the market by white retirees. Black families soon followed. First, a minister and his wife, a nurse at a nearby hospital, bought a home where they planned to raise their two sons. Their arrival provoked hysteria similar to the announcement that ISIS had Lansing in its sights as the next target in its global caliphate. The “For Sale” signs soon littered the lawns of the split level homes surrounding the black family.
The same sociological interaction and collision transpired in other neighborhoods throughout Lansing, and soon TF South had a significant black presence. As anyone with minimal intelligence and sensitivity would have predicted, black parents articulated objections to sending their children to a school — a school they helped fund through their taxes — full of Confederate imagery. It was not merely a flag outside the main building, but also murals in the hallways. Black families petitioned the city council and school board to alter the logo and iconography of the school so that they did not have to include gazing at the favorite emblem of the Ku Klux Klan as part of their daily routine.
The reasonable request for basic decency caused chaos to ensue. Many white families not only disagreed with their black neighbors, but refused to even consider their point of view, quickly casting them in the roles of villainous enemies.
“It is not about hate. It is history,” white people often claimed, only not in reference to Southern ancestry, but the thin logic of high school history. The pathetic racists of Charlottesville and other Southern cities, still unable to reconcile a 152-year-old defeat, can, at least, claim that Southern secession, treason, and terrorism are actually part of their history. To witness white people, a mere 40-minute drive from Chicago, claim the Confederacy as part of their story is to measure the heights of absurdity.
Americans, no matter how much they might vaguely protest when a statue of Robert E. Lee is about collapse, do not care about history. As endless study demonstrates, the historical ignorance of the American public is without precedent in the developed world. Universities, high schools and elementary schools continually cut history and civics from the curricula, and as any employee at a local museum or historical society could attest, institutions dedicated to the study of history can barely survive the assault of public indifference.
The fight over the Confederate Flag in Lansing taught anyone paying attention that white defense of history, as obvious from its extreme selectivity, functions as a shield for white authority.
Lansing whites reached their most rabid and weird when they marched around the high school, waving the Stars and Bars, wearing Confederate apparel and chanting in defense of a symbol that had become crucial to their consciousness.
Similar to Donald Trump, they admonished those who would “change history” and “change culture.” Well, who is in control of culture, and who has the authority to change it?
The whites of Lansing, even the preciously oblivious among them, were interested not in culture, but in control. Clearly, they were not attempting to defend their ancestry. They organized to protect their authority. If one black family moves into the house down the block, suddenly the entire neighborhood has gone to hell. If we let the blacks win the flag fight, they will get uppity, and who knows what they’ll expect next? Jobs? Equality? Positions of leadership?
Tension in Lansing, like August humidity, became heavy in the air. Chicago media covered the story regularly, and even the flagship publication of white nationalist derangement – the American Renaissance – ran a report.
Reverend Jesse Jackson spoke about visiting Lansing to mediate the conflict, but before the civil rights leader could offer necessary civility and sanity, Lansing commissioned a panel of TF South administrators, faculty and students to debate and vote on the Confederate flag as part of the school’s logo. The majority voted for removal.
No panel could vote to prevent white flight, and soon a mass exodus of whites took place. The white flight of the south suburbs of Chicago transpired so quickly and thoroughly that The New York Times reported on it in the mid-1990s, and The Chicago Reporter argued that it was one of the most rapid in the nation’s history.
The left is currently caught in the self-flagellation of debating whether or not identity politics is destructive of its prospects as a political force in American life. Should leftists and liberals, well-intended but largely ignorant commentators, focus solely on economic issues?
Anyone even glibly aware of American history should understand that there is no economic issue separate from race and gender. In Lansing, few of the cowardly and racist whites were so bold to state outright, “We are leaving because we don’t like black people.” They squawked and sputtered about “declining property values.” Those who would like to separate economics from identity fail to understand the elementary reality that economics often functions as concealment for bigotry. Just as Lansing families dressed their social animus in pretty, financial drag, American institutions have a disreputable pattern of disguising policies to protect white control with innocuous, often economic justification.
“History” and “heritage” play the same part in the national debate over Confederate monuments. When I was a high school student at TF South, a small group of parents and students attempted to resurrect the rebel flag just as the school, and town, were welcoming more black and Latino families. During a cafeteria argument with a student in support of the Confederate flag, I made reference to slavery, and he, most likely acting as a parrot for his parents, said that the Civil War was actually about “state’s rights.”
The tendency to name racism anything but racism allows the nation’s most intractable social crisis to remain an abstraction – something easy to condemn, but impossible to rectify. Rectification requires white action, and objections to the removal of the Confederate Flag in a Chicago-area high school and the destruction of secessionist monuments throughout the South provide symbolic illustration of resistance to any action that denotes white responsibility.
TF South now has a majority black student population. Last year they awarded their first African-American valedictorian. While in graduate school, I made book and booze money by working as a substitute teacher at my alma mater. Older white people would often ask me, “what is it like?” or “how do you do it?” as if I had parachuted into Afghanistan. A few even recalled when “they” made “us” take down “our flag.”
The current principal of TF South was my American History teacher during my senior year. He is a wise, compassionate and dedicated educator, who will ensure that the black and white members of his staff – he is white – will maintain a standard of excellence for the students and their community.
Because racism is so insidious, and because racists will often explode in violence to protect their illusion of superiority, relatively conscious people tend to overlook its silliness.
The Charlottesville mob chanting, “You will not replace us,” are terrified of competition and hateful of genuine meritocracy, just as the Lansing residents who supported the flag were frightened of losing their grip on something that is ephemeral.
My hometown is doing well, and my alma mater is a fine school, because the mature and thoughtful people, of both races, defeated the silly people. Class is in session for the United States.