Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Stop Discussing the Confederacy in the Past Tense

In early December, 2014, a contingent of Missouri residents, led by local NAACP leader Cornell William Brooks, marched from Ferguson, Missouri, to the state capitol in Jefferson City. They hoped to petition governor Jay Nixon, a centrist Democrat, to intervene in the local district attorney’s refusal to prosecute officer Darren Wilson for his part in the death of African American youth Michael Brown. The march took several days.

Brooks and other representatives of the mixed-race march reported receiving mainly warm responses in towns they passed through: placards of support, offers of fresh coffee, and even a few joiners. But tiny Rosebud, Missouri, population 200, received its fifteen minutes of fame when its population proved deeply unreceptive. Media reported that residents showed up to support Officer Wilson. But their unvoiced b-roll also included this chilling image:


Like me, you might’ve noticed the fella wearing the hood. He might’ve arrested your attention, telling you more than you wanted to know about certain darkened corners of today’s American culture. You might’ve been so revolted by this display of the loathsome overlap between those who defend the status quo, and those who engage in naked race-baiting, that you missed the flag behind him. That’s okay, I initially did too.

Here’s a larger shot of what we actually missed:

Clearly this isn’t an ordinary Confederate flag. I remember studying the Stars-n-Bars in middle-grade American history, and I don’t recall any grinning imbecile or any English-language slogans. Something’s off here. Well, that face belongs to Hank Williams, Jr., and that slogan comes from his obnoxious 1988 top-ten country hit “If the South Woulda Won.” Young Hank actually sold those flags on his merch table in the 1980s and 1990s.

Fifty-three years after South Carolina first flew the Confederate flag over their statehouse dome in 1962, a massive bipartisan coalition assembled this week to formally remove it. This removal will take legislation, so expect delays; but even incremental progress matters. After all, South Carolina was the first state to secede in 1860, and among the first, following Reconstruction, to force Black legislators out at gunpoint. So this is legitimate progress.

It only took a subhuman afterbirth assassinating nine African Americans, including one state senator, in church, to motivate South Carolina to stop celebrating the rebellion. But as Hank, Jr., and the Missouri costume aficionado demonstrate, this isn’t a South Carolina problem. And Nikki Haley stiltedly reading her speech off notecards won’t change the underlying problem. That church shooter only accomplished, overtly, what many Americans believe covertly.

Since the shooting, coverage of South Carolina’s Confederate flag has highlighted the Confederacy’s history as pro-slavery, white supremacist, and treasonous. All this is true, certainly. But it discomforts me because it situates Southern nationalism in the past. The League of the South, a very active group, has re-declared Confederate independence repeatedly. They’ve also simultaneously proclaimed Christian dominion, patriarchy, and, implicitly, white supremacy. And they support the Confederate flag.

South Carolina's Confederate flag: off the capitol
dome, but still on statehouse grounds
Despite gleefully praising Confederate independence, Young Hank’s song never mentions race. Directly. However, the song, which essentially comprises Hank’s campaign speech, promises to “take Miami back” from “all them pushers,” ban cars made in China, and (gulp) institute speedy hangings for convicted killers. Does anybody, except the most committedly tone-deaf, doubt Hank means to bust Cubans, Asians, and Blacks?

This is a prime example of what Ian Haney L√≥pez calls “dog whistle politics.” Though Bocephus’ racist appeal isn’t explicit, those whom he intended indubitably hear it. And this concept permeates his music. Several songs, including his classic “A Country Boy Can Survive,” include complaints about how crime-ridden cities supposedly are. When Young Hank sings against “a man with a switchblade knife,” he knows his audience pictures a Black man.

Listeners like that headpiece connoisseur in Rosebud certainly do. The confluence of Young Hank’s face, the Confederate flag, the KKK hood, and “support our cops” represents a Mulligan stew of racist imagery without ever dropping an N-bomb. For people like him, the Confederacy isn’t some historical relic whose survival preserves vestigial racism. People like him don’t perceive the Civil War as past. They believe they’re fighting it right now.

Whenever we talk about the Confederate flag’s “history” of racism, it’s tempting to think that means “past.” If you have any doubt that influence remains very present today, scroll back upward. Look at those photos. These men, the secretly race-baiting celebrity and the anonymous fan whose motivations outshine his disguise, never stopped fighting. This war is our war. It’s today. Men like this mustn’t win.

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