For the past few years, the American political landscape has been saturated with debates over Confederate symbols. Yesterday, New Orleans began the process of removing Confederate statues. While I sympathize with the demand that Southern symbols be removed, the general line of argument is based on misunderstandings of history and structural racism. The view can be summarized as follows:
A). The North ‘abolished’ slavery
B). The South fought to maintain slavery
C). Therefore, the North is not racist (or at least less racist) than the South
This view is reductive insofar as racism is concentrated in one region of the country, while the other is exonerated. In reality, there is no appreciable difference between North and South. White supremacy and anti-blackness structure both. As Malcolm X said: “stop talking about the South. As long as you’re South of the Canadian border … you’re South!”
Reminder: the Civil War was not fought to free the slaves. A confrontation with the writings of Lincoln makes this clear. In an 1862 letter, Honest Abe said: “my paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” The main concern was preserving the Union (read: white solidarity) at all costs. The status of blacks was negligible. This is why the Emancipation Proclamation ‘freed’ slaves in the Confederacy but allowed slavery to continue in the border states. For the record, the 13th Amendment does not abolish slavery at all; it simply creates an exception for slavery to continue as “punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”.
Moreover, the grossest injustices in this country were not perpetrated against the backdrop of the Confederate flag. They happened as the American flag waved proudly. The Confederate flag was created in 1861, while the American flag was created in 1777. Simple mathematics, alongside an understanding of historical injustice, dictates that the American flag is a far larger problem.
Here is a brief list of atrocities committed by the United States government: the enforcement of Fugitive Slave Laws; the Indian Removal Act of 1831; the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans in 1942; the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; overthrowing the governments of Iran and Chile; the War on Drugs; the MOVE bombing in 1985; the neo-colonial projects in Asia and Africa; the sham War on Terror that has led to millions dead or displaced in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Syria. But the problem is … ‘the Confederacy’, right?!
The Confederacy has become the scapegoat for everyday American racism/fuckery. It is easy for people to believe that these are ancient behaviors that “they” still do.
As long as we are concerned with injustice, Confederate symbols should be removed. But while we are at it, American symbols should be removed, too.