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?

END

Share
up
18 users have voted.

Comments

Pricknick's picture

I mean, with its trunk and ears, tail and legs, the animal is still an elephant, no?

Not when it looks like a donkey.

up
8 users have voted.

Regardless of the path in life I chose, I realize it's always forward, never straight.

enhydra lutris's picture

@Pricknick

be well and have a good ne

up
2 users have voted.

That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

edg's picture

For what great truth do the insurrectionists at the US Capitol labor? The return of slavery? No, that's impractical. State's rights? No, that's only important when it suits them; otherwise, states rights be damned! (Talking about you, Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, etc.) Aristotelian democracy (rule of the people)? No, conservatives always bleat that the United States is a Republic, not a democracy.

So none of those things. Instead, the insurrectionists fought to keep their man, their hero, their demigod (did you see the picture of the guy with the wooden cross) in power beyond his term. The same ugly urge that has empowered countless coups in other banana republics. Banana republics like the one the United States devolved into last week.

Photo: AFP

up
13 users have voted.
RantingRooster's picture

when anyone in government starts talking about our founding fathers, I just want to puke. (Apologies for the visual, but it's visceral to me)

Nice Essay!

Which, for me, is also why the only founding father I can stomach, is Thomas Paine.

A charter member of America's 1st abolitionist society. And when he wrote on the Origins of Government, in Common Sense, he clearly and accurately articulated the "issue", as a "moral defect" in human nature, is what gives rise for the need of governments.

For if we treated others the way we wish to be treated, we would not need government. (to paraphrase a bit)

Our original constitution clearly lay bare this moral defect and our founding father inability to have the moral integrity to disavow slavery and put an end to it. But since it was so tied to their economic well being, we know what happen. They caved!

From something I wrote a few years ago on White Supremacy and White Privilege

To the white elites of colonial society, Bacon’s rebellion represented a turning point in consciousness of African slaves and English servants, their willingness to engage in armed militancy and resistance in common cause and shared struggle. Terrified by this new development the British sent in an army to crush the rebellion and hanging some 23 of it’s rebel leaders in the process.

To me, this was a pivotal and crucible moment in our history, and most importantly to the “idea” of white supremacy taking a direct and formal root in colonial America, and to a larger extent the American psyche. For it was at this time that the old strategy of divide and conqueror was delivered with a new twist, laws were enacted specifically to divide this new class of oppressed people by color, separating whites from blacks. Bacon’s rebellion was an opportunity for the white elite to enact laws that would lay the foundations of the “idea” of white supremacy and white privilege.

snip

Lets stop here for a moment and consider that since salves were first introduced to Santos Domingo in 1501, and by 1705 as new laws and slave codes were introduced into colonial America, 204 years of the “idea” of slavery had flourished in colonial American, especially considering the large profits made by slave and plantation owners.

These new laws, slave codes as they were called, solidified and legitimized chattel slavery in the American colonies as an institution, even going so far as to codifying that children born to enslaved women would also become property of their master. The new slave codes enacted at the time represented and created an important distinction between slaves and white servants who, under the British poor laws, were required to be released after a designated time of servitude, and thus was born the “idea” of ‘white privilege’.

For poor whites, freedom from servitude was only a matter of time, but for black people, slavery was indefinite and for all perpetuity, codified by law and thus codifying (baking) white privilege and white supremacy into the “system”.

These early slave codes (laws) that so severely restricted the rights of free Africans and equated, that for the very first time the terms “Negro” and “slave” , thus codifying the world’s first institutionalized system of racialized slavery. While slavery wasn’t new, slavery based only on skin color alone, certainly was. Additionally these slave codes were designed to reinforce and cement into the minds of slaves and poor whites, the idea of ‘white privilege’, that by offering certain privileges to one servant (whites) and none to the other (blacks), based on skin color alone.

To be certain, originally these new slave codes were equally odious and ambiguously applied to all servants, but over a short time, and as the term slave became equated to mean a black person (negro), and the term servant became equated with poor whites. Simply put, white servants were granted “privileges” that their black counterparts were not

Race has been a defining characteristic in the mind set of America, because it's in the DNA of the founding of our country. At the root of which lies, the moral defect in human nature, as Thomas Paine might say.

Drinks

up
13 users have voted.

C99, my refuge from an insane world. #ForceTheVote

means the world to white supremacists in the south.
I just have no words, beyond the wonderful history lesson given in this essay, that convey to non-southerners what that flag means to them.
It identifies the person who flies it as a white supremacist. Period.
I listened to an old man, my college roommate's father, back in 1969, talk about watching a public lynching. He said the town was full of locals, good food, drinks, a terrific party. A whoop and holler when the "N" swung, Confederate flags flying everywhere. About 2 years ago, a young man working for the county here found a damn noose in his assigned truck. When he showed it to his elected official boss, he was fired for lowering morale. He was the only black in that precinct crew. The KKK headquarters is only 40 miles away. I have presented pictures in court of a tiny baby in the white gown and hood being initiated to the KKK by the Mom. My client, the Dad, won custody. The ceremony was full of the Confederate flags.
It has little to do with State's Rights or Secession. That was always the distraction for those good fighting white Christians.

up
13 users have voted.
Lookout's picture

than the way the capitol police treated BLM vs the Trumpsters.

... the central issue here is white supremacy. And white supremacy was foundational to the establishment of this nation. That is the central conflict. I mean, that is the main thing that I continue to say as an activist, is that, clearly, this is the central conflict. It is baked into our institutions. It was baked into our Constitution at the founding. And that continues to be the case. And that explains why — I wouldn’t even describe it as a difficulty in figuring out what is going on. It’s just the fact that it is the defining internal conflict of the nation. So, yes, of course, you have people within the military. You have people within policing. You have people within the government. It was elected officials who initiated the events that led to this riot.

https://www.democracynow.org/2021/1/7/us_capitol_pro_trump_mob_insurrection

up
14 users have voted.

“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”