NOTES ON JANUARY 6 FROM THE RADICAL MARGIN: THE CONFIDERATE FLAG AND RACISM
The story of “the US Capitol under attack” continues to be digested and regurgitated, to get dissected and analyzed—by this nation and the world at large.
Here, I want address one source of empowerment felt, even for a few hours, by the marauders, the ransacking hoods, terrorists, or whatever term suits your visual recollection of January 6, 2021. I want to revisit the question of RACISM in a fairly simple, but historical way to show that the VERTICAL divide between whites and non-whites, more basically between white and black populations, cannot be overcome without a clear view of a history of domination. One image that has stuck with many of us is that of the man with a huge Confederate flag standing under the dome. The first time such a thing happened I am told. But the rarity of that sight, as if the Confederate flag was the wing of an extinct bird, obfuscates a central issue.
The questions that loom large to me are: What indeed were the separatists—the Confederate States—fighting for? What is this “tradition” which urges terrorists to display the separatist flag in the US Capitol in year 2021? Was this simply a symbolic act of disagreement? Of a fleeting victory? The answers led me to a kind of collage, a piecing together the ideological (even “metaphysical”) foundation laid a long time ago.
First, here’s what Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederacy said in Georgia of all places, in 1861, explaining the Southern cause. Here are his words with some summation by me too. Stephens says :
The new constitution has put at rest, FOREVER, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. [Thomas] Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact.
Stephens argues that Jefferson and his friends did not fully grasp the ETERNAL TRUTH upon which the institution of SLAVERY WAS FOUNDED. They were ambivalent about slavery because they knew the INSTITUTION WAS UNAVOIDABLE and even INTRINSIC to the FORMATION OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY. Thus the first American Constitution guaranteed its existence and these founders were themselves slave-owners, adds Stephens. [my caps]
On the other hand, Stephens continues, the Jefferson crowd thought the enslavement of Africans may be morally, socially, even politically indefensible. So, they surmised—more wished rather than reasoned—that “somehow or other IN THE ORDER OF PROVIDENCE, THE INSTITUTION WOULD BE EVANESCENT AND PASS AWAY.” [my caps] They dared not incorporate this view in the constitution which did guarantee the rights of slave-owners because of the “common sentiment of the day”. But the ideas of Jefferson and company “were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the ‘storm came and the wind blew.’ ”
What then was the Confederate solution?
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone 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. [my caps]
THIS OUR NEW GOVERNMENT, IS THE FIRST IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD, BASED UPON THIS GREAT PHYSICAL, PHILOSOPHICAL AND MORAL TRUTH. [my caps] This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us… Those at the North, who still cling to [their] errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics … They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just—but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails …
THIS TRUTH, with which the South is armed, is unique also because it is the TRUTH OF A NATURAL ORDER, and NOT the UNFORTUNATE SUBJUGATION OF ONE CLASS OF PEOPLE OF THE SAME RACE BY ANOTHER that has been previously found in human history.”… With us, ALL of the WHITE RACE, however HIGH or LOW, RICH or POOR, are EQUAL IN THE EYE OF THE LAW. NOT SO WITH THE NEGRO. SUBORDINATION IS HIS PLACE… this is PART OF GOD’S PLAN whatever his reason may be..…For his own purposes, he has made one race to differ from another, as he has made ‘one star to differ from another star in glory.’ ” [my caps]
Therefore, concludes Stephens, the Confederate cause is just and, in the end, must triumph. The flag will be the symbol of that triumph.
I dwell on this discourse some because the theory of “natural slavery” goes back to Aristotle, and was closely involved in the Spanish conquest of indigenous peoples of the Americas. The difference in the United States was that from the outset the slave labor force of the plantations came from Africa, while the indigenous people—the natives— (referred to as savages in the DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE) were by and large uprooted, relocated and exterminated.
Secondly, Jefferson and friends were themselves slave owners, and as such it is not clear at all that they agreed that slavery was unnatural. UNFORTUNATE PERHAPS, BUT NOT DECISIVELY UNNATURAL. These men may have wished that as an institution, slavery would eventually wither away, but not necessarily because slaves and their masters were of the same species. Anyone who thinks otherwise should consult Jefferson’s only book NOTES ON THE STATE OF VIRGINIA, published in 1784.
Here are some points Jefferson makes as he considers the difference between races: whites and blacks. Obviously, the first notable difference is skin color. White is better than black because it is nuanced, while black is monotonous.
“Are not the FINE MIXTURES of RED and WHITE, the EXPRESSIONS OF every PASSION BY greater or less SUFFUSIONS OF COLOR in the one, preferable to the ETERNAL MONOTONY, which reigns IN COUNTENANCES, that IMMOVABLE VEIL OF BLACK WHICH COVERS ALL THE EMOTIONS of the other race?” [my caps]
He speculates too: “The circumstance of SUPERIOR BEAUTY is thought worthy of attention in the PROPAGATION of our HORSES, DOGS AND OTHER DOMESTIC ANIMALS; WHY NOT IN THAT OF MAN?” [my caps] Do we conclude then that Jefferson had several children with his slave mistress Sally Hemmings—as a personal breeding experiment? Remember, Sally was only sixteen and a companion of TJ’s daughter when the experiment began.
Jefferson the intellectual proceeds to compare whites and blacks along the faculties of MEMORY, REASON AND IMAGINATION [my caps]. “In memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one [black] could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigation of Euclid...” (Do you suppose TJ knew many Euclideans among the “unenlightened” white farmers and laborers of his time?) And, to no one's surprise, “in imagination they [blacks] are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.”
Blacks produce no art or artifacts compared to, for example, American Indians, but Jefferson acknowledges that “in music they are more generally gifted than whites, with accurate ears for tune and time. But that does not mean they will ever produce intricate melody or “complicated harmony.” And finally, “misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. AMONG THE BLACKS IS MISERY ENOUGH, GOD KNOWS, BUT NO POETRY.” [my caps] Earlier Jefferson had argued that “their griefs are transient,” and “in general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection.” Reflection that may have led TJ to Plato’s caste-divided “Republic” for inspiration.
In conclusion, Jefferson advances “as a SUSPICION ONLY, that the BLACKS, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, ARE INFERIOR TO THE WHITES IN THE ENDOWMENTS BOTH OF BODY AND MIND.” Once again, he urges us to look at nature out there: “it is not against experience to suppose, that DIFFERENCE SPECIES OF THE SAME GENUS, OR VARIETIES OF THE SAME SPECIES, MAY POSSESS DIFFERENT QUALIFICATIONS.” [my caps]
If we now revisit the “natural slavery” contention of Stephens, what seems to remain as a decisive heritage in America is not only the conflict between ideas upholding freedom and ideologies DEFENDING ENSLAVEMENT, but a more persistent yet less articulated CONFLICT between the ABSOLUTE CONVICTION of Mr. Stephens and others under the CONFEDERATE FLAG, and the “SUSPICION” expressed by Mr. Jefferson and internalized by millions of WHITE AMERICANS of SUCCESSIVE GENERATIONS.
We see the presence of this “conviction” versus “suspicion”, not only in Jim Crow America, but all the way through the Civil Rights movement, militarization of the police, accepted hate speech of political operatives, life without hope in the prison system, upwardly mobile Black celebrities far from housing projects… and I'm afraid, we’ll see it on and on for years to come, unless there is a complete rethinking about what liberation has NOT been in US history.
This standard model for STRUCTURAL RACISM as well as colonialism and imperialism (derived from the Aristotelian model) we can find articulated later in the context of French colonialism, for example, by Ernest Renan—the 19th Century philosopher from Brittany and champion of the French empire. Renan writes, quite earnestly of course:
“The regeneration of the inferior or degenerate races by the superior races is part of the PROVIDENTIAL ORDER OF THINGS FOR HUMANITY. With us, the common man is always a déclassé nobleman, his heavy hand is better suited to handling the sword than the menial tool. RATHER THAN WORK, HE CHOOSES TO FIGHT, that is, HE RETURNS TO HIS FIRST ESTATE .” [my caps]
How much of this kind of thinking has really disappeared from today’s “Western values”, from “American Exceptionalism”? Rather, isn’t that precisely what this exceptionalism reiterates? (Much more on this in Cornel West’s DEMOCRACY MATTERS)
So, the ideological foundation for the contradictory character of class conflict and the demarcation that continues to invoke “for whites only”, is speaking to a GOD-GIVEN BIRTHRIGHT, NOT SOCIAL PRIVILEGE.
We can clarify structural racism based on this, and by recalling three thoughts I have cited in this essay. None of them originates in an illiterate Trump or his degenerate cohorts.
First, from Stephens: WITH US, ALL OF THE WHITE RACE, HOWEVER HIGH OR LOW, RICH OR POOR, ARE EQUAL IN THE EYE OF THE LAW. NOT SO WITH THE NEGRO. SUBORDINATION IS HIS PLACE. This is the core articulation of the race/class dichotomy, of identity politics, from a champion of America’s racist doctrine.
Second, from Renan: WITH US, THE COMMON MAN IS ALWAYS A DÉCLASSÉ NOBLEMAN, HIS HEAVY HAND IS BETTER SUITED TO HANDLING THE SWORD THAN THE MENIAL TOOL. Of course, he refers to the common but world-conquering WHITE man.
And third, from the man—TJ himself: DIFFERENT SPECIES OF THE SAME GENUS, OR VARIETIES OF THE SAME SPECIES, MAY POSSESS DIFFERENT QUALIFICATIONS. Yeah, you could say “humans” is genus and white and black are different species. Or, humans are the species, white and black are “varieties.” In any event, with unequal “qualifications” to be sure.
Thus, immigrants of European stock to America can always remain “déclassé noblemen” in theory and therefore equal in the eye of the law, even though they know how easily they can become nameless in impoverishment and indignity. Even though they experience being victims of wretched healthcare, tattered social welfare, insurmountable debt—of dire inequality suffered by their compatriots of color as well, under the thumb of the same predatory or “benign” Capitalism.
Class for class, what this emergent American Fascism allots to the white victims is the nostalgia of a “noble birth” rooted in the REAL HISTORY of the country: a desire to be empowered by that one entitlement. Their CASTE BIRTHRIGHT engendered at the time of genocide committed against both the native born and the uprooted Africans—people without “the fine mixtures of red and white” on their skin. That narrative has held jurisdiction and exercised raw power, shamelessly, over and over again and with newer non-white victims—even in the 21st Century. Indeed, imagine the gratifying but illusionary empowerment awarded by that flag in the Capitol on January 6.
Therefore, none of us can escape this actuality. None of us can accept deceptive promises in place of uncompromising repudiation of Racism in America and its emergence in white supremacy, neo-fascism... or whatever else you may choose to label the manifestation. I mean, with its trunk and ears, tail and legs, the animal is still an elephant, no?