Racist ideology moves more than just people who fly Confederate flags

This is part 1 of a 3-part series on the “racial conversation.” You can find here part 2 and part 3.

Earlier this month a man Occupy Democrats identified as a “right-wing domestic terrorist” bombed a Mississippi Wal-Mart in protest over the retailer giant’s decision to no longer sell Confederate flags.

While those who struggle in this nation for a racially just society experienced a victory last summer when the Confederate Flag ceased to fly over South Carolina’s capitol dome, the media continues to report inflammatory incidents of racist violence or celebration in which the Confederate flag appears with prominent symbolism. Thus, while the flag no longer waves in its official space, it continues to live in the hearts and minds of many U.S. citizens adhering to racist beliefs and thinking.

Indeed, last August 1, supporters of the Confederate Flag rallied with their rifles in Stone Mountain Park, Georgia, forming a sea of motorcycles and trucks waving their revered symbol of the heritage–and on-going practices–of white supremacy.

While certainly these events merit media coverage, the risk in such coverage is that it fosters the narrativethat racism in our nation resides in this “other” extreme America, a culture apart, even distant from, mainstream or dominant U.S. culture, rather than being deeply rooted in the very foundation and center of U.S. culture and society since their inceptions.  This distancing effect seems especially true given the sparse coverage of the seven burnings of predominantly African American churches in the St. Louis area over a two-week span in October that were generally regarded as linked to the aftermath of the racist violence in Ferguson. 

Racism at the heart

Ta-Nehisi Coates explains this tendency of thought in a New York Times op-ed, writing, “In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist.”  This belief nefariously works to perpetuate racism, masking the way it already informs cultural norms and social structures, giving us comfort that our democratic society is free from racism and need only be vigilant to protect itself from racist invasions from the margins.

“The idea,” Coates writes, “that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion.”

Certainly, many in our culture tend to see this vociferous advocacy for the Confederate flag and the values it represents as extremism, residing on the margins of and apart from the mainstream American sensibility.  In fact, coverage of the Stone Mountain Park event dismissed and mocked the supporters as the 3%, underscoring the attitude that the values associated with the Confederate flag belong only to the extremist fringe rather than pervasively informing relationships in the American social system.

This attitude constitutes a smug and dangerous evasion of the pervasiveness in American culture of the values and ways of social thought associated with the Confederate flag.  It is worth noting that at this rally American flags could often be seen flying alongside the Confederate flag, suggesting perhaps that we need to reflect on the relationship between the values represented by the Confederate flag and our nation’s flag.

Two flags, one economy, one conversation

This need was brought home to me in full force last July 4 when I drove north from Chicago to Kenosha, Wisconsin to enjoy some fireworks with my two sons. I was struck at one point to see parked on the street amid the crowds a hulking pick-up truck brashly displaying a Confederate flag license plate while also proudly flying the Stars and Stripes from its roof.  

So much of last summer’s discussions of the Confederate flag’s meaning focused on interrogating the South and its heritage; yet this manifestation up North highlighted that racism and racial exploitation are neither long-standing cultural traditions and practices unique to the South nor isolated to any particular region of the United States. Rather, we need to remember that racial discrimination and its accompanying labor exploitation, among other forms of discrimination and exploitation, are deeply rooted in U.S. culture as a whole and central features of the foundation and historical formation and development of the U.S. nation-state and political economy.

That we need to root our understanding of race in the history of labor exploitation undergirding the development of the U.S. political economy should seem obvious. After all, even discussions of the Confederate flag often focus on the flag’s symbolic connect ion to, indeed endorsement of, slavery, which was above all a system of labor exploitation.

Yet, as historian Barbara Jeanne Fields has noted, “Probably a majority of American historians think of slavery as primarily a system of race relations-as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy rather the production of cotton, sugar, rice, and tobacco.” 

We constantly hear calls that we in the U.S. need to have a national conversation about race. It is a mantra, and yet this conversation while summoned time and time again,usually after murder upon murder of people of color,rarely seems to occur in any kind of effective way. The repeated short-circuitingof this discussion may very well be caused by the failure to understand the functioning of race within the larger context of the U.S. socio-economic system which, Fields’ quote suggests, we need to do.

Indeed, if we follow Fields, we should recognize we cannot fully have this racial conversation without discussing labor and, additionally, without discussing the function of “race” within the larger U.S. socio-economic system historically and today.  I want to suggest we see “race” as part of a larger cultural tendency and insistence on establishing relationships of superiority and inferiority, domination and subordination-in other words, as part of a broader tendency of supremacist thought.

Race and labor exploitation

I am not suggesting that we submerge or subordinate the discussion of race to matters of political economy, labor exploitation, and class inequality, such that matters of race become secondary.  Rather, I am asserting that race in the United States is in itself a category that organizes our political economy, that is used to target people of color for labor exploitation, and that it functions as a principle for the unequal distribution of social resources.

 Thus, I am suggesting that the language in which we talk about race in America needs to encompass these issues and that a broader conversation about race should indeed lead us into, or at the same time be, a discussion that brings us to the heart of American society-that is, to return to Fields, a discussion about how (in)effective and (in)humane  our system of social relationships is in enabling us to take care of each other, meaning  to produce and distribute the goods and services to meet the basic needs of all people and to take advantage of the creative resources of all people, as opposed to generating mass unemployment,  to meet those needs.

The Confederate flag and its idolaters have become an easy target in U.S. culture because of their overt abhorrence and inhumanity, allowing pundits and others to denounce these Southern traditionalists in self-satisfied ways that effectively deflect the complicity of the rest of American society in advancing a gross system of structured inequality.  Last summer’s media fervor over the Confederate flag, it seems to me, projectedonto the flag the whole  history of racial violence and injustice that has long informed and continues to inform to this day-quite obviously-the dominant values and culture of U.S. society at large. In so doing, we risk, then, making the Confederate flag a scapegoat for our national neuroses and the violent crimes they have engendered from the initial European encroachment on the territory now known as the U.S. to the present.

Progressives are perhaps a less easy and certainly more substantial target, which is why the Black Lives Matter movement’s notorious disruption of Bernie Sanders’ speech at an event celebrating Social Security and Medicare last summer hopefully stands a chance of moving forward our national conversation on race in the ways I’ve suggested.  Sanders already talks about income inequality and economic injustice more generally.  Perhaps Sanders’ issuing of a statement on racial inequality and injustice in America the night of the disruption signals a move that he and other white progressives will foreground race not simply in the discussion of these other issues but as the discussion itself encompassing these other issues.

How might a more layered conversation about race in the U.S. lead us into a discussion that brings us to the heart of American society?  Well, let’s return to theissue of the relation between the values of white supremacy embodied in the Confederate flag and those represented in the American flag. Seeing these flags juxtaposed made me think the Confederate flag and its values cannot be separated from American society as a whole but rather need to be understood as part and parcel of the larger American culture which shares a deep commitment to and insistence on determining relations of superiority and inferiority and allocating resources on the basis of those often fictitious distinctions. 


In its most ingrained form, we see this commitment in the deeply entrenched cultural value of meritocracy.  The meritocratric ideal holds at its heart the idea that some people are more skilled, intellectually gifted, or endowed with physical abilities and thus deserve more access to social resources, supposedly because these superior people somehow contribute more to the world.  Those who are less gifted in these ways deserve less, even to the point that they may go hungry, be without housing, or have no access to health care. The meritocratic idea sees these outcomes as just, as deserved.  We tend, as a culture, to accept and live by this creed as a matter of common sense. While there are efforts to raise the minimum wage or narrow the wealth gap, we don’t hear many complaints that the doctor, lawyer, software engineer, or senator earn more than the fast food worker, janitor, Target cashier, postal worker, or construction worker.  It is fair to say, I think, that central to the dominant American belief system is a commitment to inequality-income and otherwise-and to determining relationships of superiority and inferiority as a means of justifying the unequal distribution of wealth

In this sense, the values of the Confederacy share the dominant commitment to the rightness of establishing hierarchies and justifying exploitation and the unequal distribution of wealth based on that hierarchy. The Confederacy’s vice president, for example, was clear that the Confederacy’s foundation “rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery-subordination to the superior race-is his natural and normal condition.”So, not only is “the Negro” inferior, but that inferiority justifies his enslavement and exploitation for the purposes of creating wealth for the slaveholding class.   On the basis of skin color, it was decided African Americans did not merit as much as whites.

Race is just one of the mechanisms-still associated in many minds with merit– at work in our socio-economic system and culture that is used to define relationships of superiority and inferiority-or domination and subordination-and to distribute wealth and resources unequally, just as gender is as well.   Indeed, largely flying under the radar during the height of the confederate flag controversy were the ridiculous yet revealing statements of Scott Walker regarding equal pay legislation. When asked if he supported such legislation, he complained that the such legislation “pit[ted] one group against another group out there.”In short, he offered a ridiculous excuse for maintaining unequal pay among gender lines.  Historically, of course, women and people of color, simply based on the fictions of race and gender, have enjoyed less access to social resources and been relegated to less remunerative and prestigious occupations.

Redistribution of wealth

Perhaps it is because as a culture we have not liberated ourselves from the ingrained tendency to, indeed insistence on, determining relationships of inferiority and superiority as a means of distributing wealth.  As much as on one level our nation prides itself on its belief that “all men are created equal,” our culture and socio-economic system operate with a powerful commitment to inequality in many forms.  In this sense, values of white supremacy espoused by the confederacy are not so different from those that are largely accepted in this nation’s dominant belief system which holds dear the notion that some deserve more than others based on their superiority-or supremacy, to use a more charged word.

Our collective refusal to confront this belief, even to deny it by falsely distinguishing American values from Confederate values, hobbles progressives in efforts to transform our world.  Even progressives who ask for equality are fighting against themselves, still often deeply committed to inequality, endorsing it, and even complicit with behaviors that sustain it.

Let me be clear, I am not trying to say that some people aren’t smarter, stronger, or more skilled than others.  Certainly Einstein was smarter than most-if not all-and few if any could do what he did. But we have to ask the question-which our culture rarely does-as to why people with different abilities merit differential access to social resources.  Let’s even grant that some might be superior.  Why is that a basis for enabling, say, a college professor, greater access to social resources (in the form of health care, wages, educational opportunities,etc.) than the janitor who cleans the building she works in and makes it possible for her to do her job?  In many ways, we have created the categories of “skilled” and “unskilled” to establish hierarchies for distributing wealth, but how are they really less arbitrary than “black” and “white” or “man” and “women”?

In this sense, our contemporary America shares much with the old Confederacy, and the more we insist Confederate values are extreme and marginal, the longer we will remain mired in a world of brutal violence and stark inequality.

Photo: The idea that one race is superior to another is an idea held by far more people than those who for decades resisted the lowering of the Confederate flag in South Carolina.   |  Rainier Ehrhardt/AP


Tim Libretti
Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti teaches in the English Department at a public university in Chicago where he lives with his two sons.