Saturday, June 27, 2015

Confessions Of A Former Confederate

In a moment of heated debate, it is useful for me to step back and consider the myriad beliefs I hold that are incorrect, immoral, or just plain stupid. Of course, this is something close to an exercise in futility because I don't know what those misguided beliefs are. If I did, I suppose I wouldn't claim them as my own. Yet the mere admission--if sincerely contemplated--that such beliefs have no doubt found a home in me is a useful check on overweening pride and judgment of others. And I can go a step further. My current error may be extremely hard to discern, but I can see my past sins with relative clarity.

One of those sins is directly related to the debate over the Confederate flag. So let's have some real talk.

As a teenager, I was a devotee of the Confederacy. Call it my own peculiar brand of adolescent rebellion if you like. I devoured popular military histories of the Civil War, including Shelby Foote's monumental classic. I read the book precisely as Foote wrote it--lustily cheering for the underdogs (more about this in a moment). My favorite movie was Gettysburg, a sprawling epic that hit all the high notes of popular myth: the civil war as tragedy, of noble brothers bonded by valor, of invisible African Americans. I labored through a book purporting to show that the South did not secede because of slavery, and I prided myself on reading every word of what seemed to be a very academic book. I played the Civil War General computer game and enjoyed destroying the Yankees at Fredericksburg. I went to bed at night pondering what might have been if only Stonewall Jackson had not ridden out in the dark that fateful night to be shot by his own men. Ahh, the possibilities!

As a 17-year old taking an English 101 class at the local community college, I declared that the historical figure I would most like to meet was Robert E. Lee--not only because of his military prowess, but because of his extraordinary character. I evangelized to my friends, explaining to them that the war was not about slavery and that the South was in the right. I lamented the expansion of federal power that the war wrought. A couple years ago, I found my notes from a 2004 sociology class. I was the hapless Confederate roped into a group project on racial disparities in modern America. Scrawled across the pages of evidence gathered by my classmates were my words: "Not true!" "False!" I knew my classmates were wrong not because I gathered counter-evidence, but because they had to be wrong.

Though I myself did not wear or fly the Confederate flag, its absence was by circumstance rather than conviction. Being a collector of books rather than memorabilia, I simply never got around to buying one.

We can talk about all sorts of reasons I may have had so many mistaken beliefs, but the real root of it is deceptively simple: In my mind, Black people were abstract. They were something less than fully human. I gave intellectual consent to their existence without any difficulty. But they were people to be talked about more than talked to. They were people on the news (and it usually wasn't flattering). They did not sweat and bleed and dream and hope in precisely the same way I did. They appeared in history as disembodied slaves. Not enslaved people, just slaves. They appeared as the aggregate labor force of King Cotton, not as the stooped backs and bloodied hands picking that cotton. They were "servants" and slaves with a better diet than many European peasants (this was, for some reason, a very important point). They were not parents and children separated by sale; they were not liars and truth-tellers and heroes and failures and murderers and saints and all the other things that human beings are. Mostly, they just weren't in my picture at all. My enthusiasm for the underdogs extended not to the real underdogs, but their oppressors.

There is a rather simpler way of talking about all this. I was racist. (And, no doubt, still am by the way). But to simply say that I was a racist is to miss the nuances of what this racism consisted of. It was not, in fact, animus toward Black people. (True to form, I could honestly say at the time that my best friend was Black, and it was literally true.) It was, rather, a pervasive overlooking of Black people, Black culture, Black history, a dismissal so total that it constituted the dehumanization of an entire class of human beings. This was all invisible to me. If I said I had nothing against Black people, I wasn't putting on airs. If I said I saw and treated all people equally, I said it with all the certainty of an unexamined conscience. And when I praised the Confederacy, it literally didn't occur to me that this had much at all to do with Black people.

In 2005, I moved to Chicago for college. I met a wonderful young woman (now my wife) who mercifully did not dismiss me out of hand when I casually mentioned that I was a fan of the Confederacy. She began to have her effect on me. And over the years, Black Christians and Black neighbors have been so patient, so winsome, so manifestly human, that my unexamined and unconscious racism was ruthlessly exposed.

Once a process of repentance began in my life, I began to see that many of my beliefs about the Civil War, African Americans, and the Confederacy were factually wrong. But the deeper transformation was a moral one. I came to see that my moral failing preceded my intellectual error. Believing fake history did not make me racist as much as being racist made fake history seem plausible. My moral awakening exposed my intellectual incoherence and quickly caused it to crumble.

Who is to blame? We like to assign culpability, right? This was my sin. It's completely on me, and I have to answer for it. Yet we must keep another truth in mind at the same time. My sin was only practical, only conceivable, in a society of White supremacist imagination. My beliefs had no rational basis, and we do not, as a matter of course, wander off into random irrational beliefs. Rather, our beliefs are structured by the boundaries of the plausible in a given society. Evil embedded in the foundations of a society is hard to recognize. It appears, in fact, as nothing at all. It is natural, invisible. It is what allowed me to breathe in American air and exhale profound indifference for my fellow human beings.

I bring this experience to the Confederate flag debate. That's my bias. I don't think I'm particularly noble. I don't think I'm particularly monstrous. I'll let you work out the implications.


  1. I think your separation of animus, or hate from racism is crucial. Active hate sometimes goes along with racism, but it is not necessary for racism or even common in racism. Instead racism is dehumanization, it is seeing another group of people as less human than you. This is very informative in how to think about the confederate flag. Saying it is not a symbol of hate for most people misses the point, it is a symbol of dehumanization. To say it is a symbol to honor southern heritage is excluding a large percentage of the southern population, it is discounting the experience of African Amercicans and saying that there part in southern heritage is not important. It seems to me that to view southern heritage in this way you must see African Americans as less human.

  2. " I came to see that my moral failing preceded my intellectual error. Believing fake history did not make me racist as much as being racist made fake history seem plausible."

    That. (Although the fake history probably came first.)

  3. PS: Finally getting around to blogging this.