Thursday, July 02, 2015


These poll results are disheartening, and they're going to lead to a lot of smug triumphalism on the right:
American public opinion on the Confederate flag remains about where it was 15 years ago, with most describing the flag as a symbol of Southern pride more than one of racism, according to a new CNN/ORC poll....

The poll shows that 57% of Americans see the flag more as a symbol of Southern pride than as a symbol of racism, about the same as in 2000 when 59% said they viewed it as a symbol of pride. Opinions of the flag are sharply divided by race

Among African-Americans, 72% see the Confederate flag as a symbol of racism, just 25% of whites agree....
As Zandar notes, this isn't a case of "Oh, the old people are still living in the past, but the young are so much more enlightened": overall, 57% of respondents think the flag is more a symbol of pride than of racism; among Millennials, that number is 58%.

A second poll shows similar results:
[A] Suffolk University/USA Today poll conducted two weeks after the apparently racially motivated shooting ... found that 42 percent of Americans think the flag is racist and should be removed from state grounds, while 42 percent of Americans think the flag is not racist and represents Southern history.

(Those numbers break down less along regional lines and more along partisan lines, with 63 percent of Democrats calling the flag racist and 61 percent of Republicans saying it's not.)
Well, it's hard to fight 150 years of propaganda accepted as fact:
As historian David Blight writes in his 2001 book Race and Reunion, in the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction, former Confederates and their supporters waged a propaganda campaign to shape American historical memory. The result was a popular understanding of the war and its aftermath that glamorized the valor of Confederate soldiers, downplayed slavery as a cause of the war and cornerstone of the Confederacy, recast Reconstruction as a period of tyranny and “black domination,” and justified the violent disenfranchisement and dispossession of black Americans for decades to come.

Even after the narrative of a benign and honorable Confederacy fell out of favor with historians, it continued to dominate American popular culture in film and literature, from The Birth of a Nation to The Dukes of Hazzard. The damage wrought by this interpretation of history is immeasurable. It is only now unraveling.
Or not unraveling.

Did you read Margaret Biser's recent Vox article about the questions she heard regarding slavery while working at a plantation that's now a historic site? If you did, it won't surprise you that a lot of white Americans are oblivious to the realities of this part of our history. A small sample from that article:
I showed the young mother some of the slaves' names and pointed out which people were related to each other. The mom stiffened up, raised her chin, and asked pinchedly, "Did the slaves here appreciate the care they got from their mistress?"

"These were house slaves, so they must have had a pretty all right life, right?" is a phrase I heard again and again. Folks would ask me if members of the enslaved household staff felt "fortunate" that they "got to" sleep in the house or "got to" serve a politically powerful owner....

The most extreme example of this occurred in my very last week of work. A gentlemen came in to view our replica slave quarter and, upon learning how crowded it was, said, "Well, I've seen taverns where five or six guys had to share a bed!"
But white obliviousness extends beyond slavery and the Confederacy. When allegations of police brutality are in the news, we often hear from black men and teenage boys who report routine police stops for no reason. It seems impossible for whites to be unaware that virtually every black male is stopped by the police repeatedly -- an experience that we white males simply don't share.

And yet:
White people ... are more confident than ever that local police treat black and white people equally, according to the Washington Post.

A poll conducted by NBC News and Marist College ... found that 52 percent of white people have a "great deal" of confidence that local police treat black people and white people equally. That's a higher percentage than many previous polls that asked the same or a very similar question, dating all the way back to 1995.

Or maybe this isn't obliviousness. Whites certainly have a tendency to feel that being asked to feel empathy is a tremendous hardship. Some, I imagine, think it's worse than slavery.


Victor said...

You know what should cause Southerner's to be proud?

Their literature, poetry, plays, music (mostly black, but not all), arts and crafts, and their food - which, if you eat too much, will kill you.

Be proud of those, and not 4 years of traitorous treason and rebellion, and the 150 years of propaganda and what I call "The Cold Civil War" - and that hideous, racist flag, symbolizing 100's of years of slavery and oppression.

Unknown said...

Victor: I've been saying this for a long time. MLK was a Georgian, but I don't see people wearing MLK t-shirts as a sign of southern pride. Similarly, when Mississippi wanted an official state book, they went for the Bible, even though, you know, William Faulkner.

Similarly, I've seen a lot online from people claiming that slaves were treated well because they were so "valuable." It's 150 years past the Civil War and people continue to get their history from Gone With the Wind.

Professor Chaos said...

There is a sickness in our culture that will not allow us to confront the evil in our past or present. A shocking number of people will insist that slavery was benign, that the Native American genocide didn't happen or was somehow justified, and that our various foreign interventions have all been for good causes.
Too many people have a pathological need to see America as the great force for good given by God himself yo improve the world. Nothing will get better unless we can face our misdeeds honestly.

Victor said...

To be fair, a lot of great Southern literature stems from their racist slave-owning past and the Civil War and how to, or not to, address it.

Faulkner, is a good example of that.

Unsalted Sinner said...

I think this is less about obliviousness than the power of wishful thinking. To a white person, accepting the existence of white privilege is to question whether we really have earned the economic and social position we enjoy. And most of us don't like to think too closely about that.