By Colin Woodward
The massacre at a church in Charleston last month sparked yet another heated conversation about race in this country. In the wake of the murders committed by a young, hate-filled racist, who wanted to start a race war, we have seen the Right and the Left take their familiar posture on race relations.
In the crosshairs, yet again, is the Confederate flag. On the extreme Left, liberals want to remove all public veneration of the Confederacy. The worst element of the Right denies a problem even exists, views the proud display of the Rebel flag as harmless, and calls racist those who wish to discuss the issue of slavery and the Civil War.
Allow me to weigh in. As far as issues of race go, things have gotten much better in the U.S. than they were 50 or 60 years ago. But things are still bad, and they need to get better. And I will likely say this forty years from now, if I’m still kicking and the robots have not taken over.
Last month, Marc Maron aired his podcast of his talk (Maron doesn’t like to refer to them as interviews) with Barack Obama. To quote the president: “Racism, we are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public.” I was surprised that Obama used such frank language, but I was not at all shocked by it. Obama was raised having to carry all the wight that comes from being African American. And it was refreshing that he talked openly and honestly about race.
Obama is proof that when it comes to race, African Americans have come very far in the last half century. Blacks no longer live under a Jim Crow system. They are among our wealthiest and most admired writers, television hosts, politicians, actors, athletes, and movie stars. In the last twenty years, we have had two African American secretaries of state (Powell and Rice) and our first African American president.
And yet, there are few black members of Congress. No black filmmaker has ever won an Oscar for directing. In the entire history of our country, there have been few black governors, even in states with large black populations. True, we’ve had an African American president for the past six years.
But once Obama–who is as much white as he is black–was elected, he was demonized as unAmerican, literally and figuratively. Jackasses like Donald Trump denied he was born in this country, claiming he was a “Muslim from Kenya.” One need not go far to find the most vile, racist, anti-Obama rhetoric and imagery on the internet.
Until last week, the Confederate flag flew on the Capitol grounds in Columbia, South Carolina. 150 years after the end of the Civil War, which South Carolina began, we are seeing progress on the issue of the Rebel flag.
But when looking at Charleston’s decision to take the flag down, it’s one of those instances of the glass being half-empty or half-full. South Carolina never should have flown a Rebel flag, and it really has nothing to do with preventing mass murder in this country, whether it be racially motivated or not. We managed to turn a gun debate into a debate about southern heritage.
Still, a meaningful debate is a meaningful debate. Over the last five or ten years, we have occasionally heard people talk about how we live in a “post-racial society.” And that kids today ;don’t see race.” Really? The same kids who bully other kids to the point of suicide? They’re more enlightened than the Generation Xers or Boomers on race? Doubtful.
As well meaning as the notion of a “post-racial society” may be, it is painfully naive. Racial matters have improved since our grandparents were alive, to be sure. But how much progress, really, has their been in the last twenty or thirty years? How meaningful has change been on core racial matters? Not much. Yes, we have an African American president, but our next president almost surely will not be. Politicians vote to take down the Confederate flag in Columbia or remove a Nathan Bedford Forrest statue in Memphis, but then fools waving Confederate flags greet in Obama in Oklahoma (which wasn’t even a state, let alone a Confederate one, until 1907).
To say racism has ended is as absurd as saying we live in a “postwar society” or “post-sexist society.” Another cliche is that racism is taught, not natural. But because racism is so prevalent and perhaps indestructible, one wonders if it is just a bi-product of the human condition and human nature, not a “social construct,” the result of bad parenting, bad history, or bad legislation. Many parents teach racism. But there’s also a Lord of the Flies element to racist behavior.
The slaughter at the church in Charleston came not long after race riots in Baltimore and a string of high profile killings of black men by police (one in Charleston received national headlines). Trayvon Martin’s killer got no jail time. Last November, Ferguson, Missouri, burned in the wake of a black man killed by police.
Just yesterday, news broke of an African American woman who died under mysterious circumstances while in custody in Texas. The police say she hanged herself. Her family says that was unlikely. The details are forthcoming, but the incident again casts in a bad light the relationship between law enforcement and the black community. Distrust on both sides is deep.
Yes, the race problem is alive and well in America. And one wonders if it will ever be made right. We are 150 years away from slavery. But slavery lasted more than 300 hundred years in English North America. The math is not in our favor.
In 1903, the black historian W. E. B. DuBois said, “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color-line — the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” One wonders what would he say were he alive today.
The Confederate flag isn’t dead, nor is the debate about it. Just a few days after the Charleston shootings, I was driving with family through a suburb of Richmond, VA. In front of us at one point was a white jeep, with several white guys in it. They had not one but two Rebel flags flying from the back of their vehicle. The license plate? I kid you not: “RDNECKS.”
The Confederacy is alive and well in the minds of the white South.
Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book about Johnny Cash.