Home National Politics The Republicans’ Smart Move on the White Supremacy Issue

The Republicans’ Smart Move on the White Supremacy Issue

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Ordinarily, I don’t go public with such an early draft of a piece as this. I expect that a more polished version will be in newspapers out here in the Shenandoah Valley next week. But somehow, with this one, it feels better not to wait to share it now with this readership. It’s Saturday, it relates to the stuff we’ve all been talking about for the past week, and it relates to the paramount electoral contest here in Virginia in this election year.

So for all those reasons, here’s what I’ve drafted today.

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The Republicans have apparently made a very smart decision. In the wake of the difficulties the Party faced after President Trump’s equivocations regarding the white supremacist and neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, they have figured out a way to shift the conversation to their advantage: rather than talking about white supremacy, much better to talk about the controversy over Confederate monuments.

That’s a smart move because, although only a small minority of Americans respond favorably to a defense of white supremacy, a recent poll shows that 62 percent of Americans support keeping statues honoring leaders of the Confederacy as historical symbols. That issue, therefore, puts people like Ed Gillespie – the Republican candidate for Virginia’s governorship – in an advantageous position re his Democratic opponent, Ralph Northam, who backs their removal.

But this move is like a lot of other smart electoral moves the Republicans have made in recent years: though clever, it also is founded on falsehood.

The argument that our history should be acknowledged and not erased is a compelling one. But the problem is, what these statues represent is not our real history, but a distortion of it. The picture of history they represent is false in two ways.

First, they are an expression of a myth about the Confederacy — that arose quickly after the Civil War — according to which the Confederacy fought for noble ideals.  But – as journalist Tracy Thompson, born and raised in Atlanta, reports: among scholars who study the war, though on many things they disagree, on one point they agree: for the South, the issue of slavery was “the root of everything.”

The men who fought for the Confederacy fought for the preservation of slavery—as the declarations from the various states as they seceded and formed the Confederacy made quite clear. Even if they denied it six years later. (Google: McPherson, nyrb.com, civil war.)

The second falsehood – or rather, only very partial truth — is that impulse behind the erection of all these monuments was one of honoring the past heroes of the Confederacy. It was that, but it was something else, too—something darker.

The actual history of the appearance of these monuments adds another important – and rather darker, animated by the spirit of racial superiority – to the story.

It was nearly two generations removed from the Civil War that these monuments went up. It was a time of a powerful reassertion of white dominance in the South. The last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of twentieth century was a time when black people were not only denied the right to vote, but were being lynched by the hundreds. (Mostly black men, but also women and children.)

Domination by terror. Domination by law. Humiliation and torture made part of a people’s experience.

It was in that context that many Confederate monuments were erected and placed in public squares and near courthouses—conveying a “very pointed statement about the rule of white supremacy.” The monument declares, in the words of journalist Ida B. Wells: “All who enter the courthouse are subject to the laws of white men.”

In other words, in the perspective of the true history, shifting the topic from white supremacy to Civil War monuments is not changing the subject at all. The subject is still white supremacy, only now it is hidden behind some venerable falsehoods.

But the move is no less smart for that. The false picture, and those who use it, have the advantage in two ways.

First, it’s a simple picture and can be conveyed in a sentence. The South had this noble Lost Cause, and those who erected and those who support their place in the landscape simply want to honor their heritage. It’s not about race.

By contrast, the true picture is more complex. Conveying that picture requires providing people some understanding of the role these monuments have played in the system of racial suppression.

The other disadvantage the truth has here is that it runs up against lies that have been disseminated in American culture for well over a century. In the South in particular, teachers and professors could lose their jobs if they taught history as the historians knew it instead of as the dominant powers in society composed it. (google…)

According to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2011, while 38% of Americans agreed with the virtually unanimous opinion of the experts that the South fought to defend slavery, 48% believed it was for other, non-racist reasons.

The story of how Southern revisionists managed to make their version of history the dominant one is an interesting one. But all that need be said here is that the success of these historical falsehoods over generations has the effect in today’s political contests of putting a wind at the back of those eager to use the issue of Confederate monuments to get themselves elected.

A candidate like Northam has truth and righteousness on his side on this issue. But if I were he, I would not be eager to have the campaign focus on it. It is very hard for a candidate to educate the voting public about anything the least bit complex. And people will respond to Gillespie’s version because Northam’s more valid case will be harder to make.

What matters most, however, is not the monuments themselves, many of which are quite beautiful and inspiring as heroic figures. (I think the statue they’re fighting over in Charlottesville is splendid.) What matters is whether Americans are willing to understand what they signify in terms of the relationship between the races in America – both historically, and in this present moment.

And what matters is that, understanding that, people are willing to extend empathy and brotherhood to their fellow Americans who have endured a history most painful to endure, made more painful by its being denied.

Clearly, the Christian thing to do is to make sure that the solution to the monuments issue is to find some way of addressing meaningfully the entirely understandable feelings of people who have experienced pain from white supremacy, and who have experienced the real message of these monuments, perceive these monuments.

As you would have them do unto you.

  • Andy Schmookler

    Just a word to make something more explicit– about how this relates to Virginia politics.

    I got that information that 62% of Americans support the position that Gillespie’s taking from an article from NBC news that Lowell linked to in yesterday’s news: The title of the article indicated that the Monuments issue was somehow framing the 2017 Virginia elections. (Virginia Campaign Shaping Up as a Referendum on Confederate Monuments)

    I don’t know how much there is to that assessment, but however prominent it becomes, it will need to to be handled adeptly. A way needs to be found to prevent Gillespie from tapping successfully into some deep springs that have been instilled in many Southern white voters — people whose culture has taught powerfully for generations the importance of solidarity where racial status is on the line.

    There are strong loyalties there that are readily summoned up from the deep. That’s long been the work of demagogues who understand the route into that set of traumas and rages. And the skill that these people have — people like Trump — is that they can play on the forces of darkness.

    Gillespie will do it in a far more refined way than Trump does. But what he will do is still playing with darkness: he will be encouraging white voters to vote to defend the “heritage,” while obscuring that this “heritage” has had white supremacy at its core.

    Thought should be given to how to overcome the force of that subtle and dark appeal. And how it might be possible to increase the public’s understanding of what this is really all about. And how this issue can be creatively dealt with in a way that minimizes the conflict over race that has lately been raising its ugly head more in America.

    I just saw a historian on MSNBC make an important distinction that could be useful: the issue is not whether we keep hold of our history, he said. We should keep all our important history preserved. The issue is not whether we PRESERVE that history, but rather what in our history we choose to HONOR.

    The proposal should not be to get destroy or dispose of these statues. Rather, according to that historian, to put them into a museum setting, which is suitable for conveying to people what the history has been.

    But from the time a century or so ago that these were first deployed, it was in such a way as to HONOR the Confederacy through the image of warriors who fought to preserve slavery. (It was to preserve slavery — which is about WHITE SUPREMACY — that the states of the Confederacy chose to break up the United States to defend– even though it was under no imminent threat as an institution, the question being only whether its empire could be expanded.)

    If I were Northam, I’d try to minimize the role of this issue in the election. But to the extent that this issue must be fought out, I’d compose a diplomatic way of helping voters to see that the the monuments convey a historic message of WHITE SUPREMACY.

    In other words, I would tie it back to Charlottesville. Very gently. History tells us that the monuments are a more beautiful way of making some of the same supremacist assertions that were done in such an ugly way by the KKK and the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.

  • Andy Schmookler

    In the previous note, I spoke of “repudiating” the monuments. Upon reflection, I think that’s an unnecessarily harsh approach. Better to redefine their place in the surrounding society. Changing their status. Better to indicate that we now stand for a society of a different sort from the kind for which the Confederacy fought. Time to come up with new images that capture what we stand for — a society in which equality is honored, difference is appreciated, and groups deal with each other with mutual respect and consideration.

    Perhaps a candidate, like Northam — as “our next governor” — might throw out a creative challenge: tell us — better still, show us — what statuary would be appropriate for a Virginia that has moved beyond the social order represented by the old statuary.

    Another point: though I do not have any proof of this, I do believe that the graph of the power of the white supremacy passion in America, over the years, is not a straight line. Rather, that it dipped in the post-War era, and that it has been on the rise in recent years, as people like Donald Trump (with his birther lie all the way to Tuesday’s press conference) have inflamed those old passions.

    The Republicans have been feeding the beast for a generation– more really, but increasingly so with people like Limbaugh and a Supreme Court that would gut the Voting Rights Act.

  • Andy Schmookler

    Continuing to thinking out loud here… In the previous comment, I wrote:

    “Perhaps a candidate, like Northam — as “our next governor” — might throw out a creative challenge: tell us — better still, show us — what statuary would be appropriate for a Virginia that has moved beyond the social order represented by the old statuary.”

    Ask people; Show us what you’d build that would be as meaningful and as great a source of pleasure for Virginians generally as a statue of Robert E. Lee was satisfying for those who erected such Confederate-hero statuary for only the dominant part of the old Virginia.

    I’d try to turn the issue toward a vision of the future. The statue would represent a piece of “mission statement.” An expression of the ideals behind the best of Virginia.

    It could be a warrior, again, or a mother holding a child, or a giant bust of Thomas Jefferson. Or perhaps something for Jefferson like what that newish FDR monument in Washington does for him.

    (As FDR’s monument presents words carved in granite–words that conjure up a most wonderful set of values and deep humanity, so also the best of Thomas Jefferson (or George Washington) could likewise conjure up a set of ideals worth celebrating together as Virginians and as Americans.

    Celebrating the nation — the United States of America — that these great Virginians did such a good job to define and to shape. Celebrating the nation that the “heroes” of the Confederacy are famous only for their heroic efforts to break apart.

  • Andy Schmookler

    I just read something that talked about the danger to the Democrats if some of their anti-fascist allies (vigilantes was the word used) were to vandalize the Confederate monuments.

    I don’t think even good leadership can restrain some people who might seize the opportunity for such destructive acts, but I believe there’s a way that Democrats can minimize the danger.

    My pessimism about prevention derives from my experience from when I lived in Berkeley, CA (1968-1973– except for one year). In that era, I recall being in protests against the war in Vietnam, and I recall also there was also an element you wish were not on your side– the kind who would throw a rock through a Bank of America window.

    My sense was that this kind of person is not really being political. Such people, rather, are using the situation as an opportunity to act out something angry in themselves.

    So what I think the Democrats should do is to get out in front of the issue. Call explicitly for a process of working this through which involves no violence, like we saw in Charlottesville, and involves no abusive speech toward other groups.

    Whenever the issue of the monuments must be dealt with, Democratic leaders should loudly declare that these statues should continue to be treated with respect. Call for a process of working this through that leads to the best possible resolution, and — while advocating their removal to become displays in museums, say that no one should damage or deface what we hope will have a prominent place in some Virginia museum in the future.

    Then if something happens, the position of the Democrats will be publicly on the side that called for respect and a good non-violent process; and they won’t be tied to vandals simply because they were against maintaining the monuments’ status quo.