Part One – Privilege and Insecurity
…one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain. – James Baldwin
Juneteenth is a new national holiday! On June 19th, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Texas with news that the Civil War was over and that the enslaved were free. This was over two months after the Confederate surrender and two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Why did they take so long? Some tell stories of messengers who were murdered. Others say that plantation owners withheld the news to maintain the labor force as long as possible, or that federal troops actually waited for them to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest.
This pattern of dis-information became a model for the years to come, all the way up to the fake news and alternative facts of our current times, and it meshed with a national character that has always welcomed it. In their guts, White people have always known the truth. But the mythology (or if you prefer, the propaganda) of innocence has generally overcome the wisdom of the body, because part of this mythology has always been about hatred of the body. So I’d like to ask: Did the South actually win the Civil War?
Of course, the Confederacy lost the actual war. Legalized slavery ended and the Union was saved. Of course, black people have equal rights and are better off economically. Why, we even had a black president.
Now let’s talk about reality. To do so, let’s consider the South’s objectives at the start of the Civil War:
1 – Preservation of slavery
2 – Expansion of white supremacy throughout the whole nation
3 – Division of the working class by motivating white people through fear
4 – Expansion of American imperialism across the world
5 – Erosion of federal authority and acceptance of “state’s rights”
6 – Free trade, or low tariffs on foreign manufactured goods
All African Americans know that their rights and freedoms have been gained and then reversed before, and that this can happen again.
Clearly, the Southern oligarchs were determined to preserve and expand slavery. It was enshrined into the very first article of the Confederate Constitution, and all the insurrectionary states listed it as their first reason for rebelling. For its impact on our 21st century, however, we really need to understand what motivated poor whites, perhaps a third of the South’s population. Keri Leigh Merritt writes,
…they were surplus workers competing in a labor market with brutalized, unpaid enslaved people. After the forced migration of around eight hundred thousand enslaved laborers from the Upper South to the Deep South in the 1830s and 1840s, job opportunities for poor whites were scarce.
These were men who couldn’t imagine having the resources to actually own slaves. So why did several hundred thousand of them fight for the Confederacy? Certainly, most of them were draftees, and many deserted. But of those who remained, why did they defend this cause so savagely? We are in the realm of a profound mystery, and we cannot understand the mess the nation is in now without confronting it.
The answer is clear, even if it opens us to further mystery. By 1700, allegiance to the idea of whiteness had eliminated class competition and created a population of poor whites to intimidate slaves and suppress rebellion. Very soon, America’s primary model for class distinction became relations between free whites and enslaved blacks, rather than between rich and poor. The new system, writes Theodore Allen, insisted on “the social distinction between the poorest member of the oppressor group and any member, however propertied, of the oppressed group.”
Long after the first slave patrols were formed and poor Southern whites received their indoctrination into the realities of caste, they fought not to save slavery (which was against their own economic interests), but to perpetuate white privilege.
Without these non-economic privileges and the projection of all evil onto Blacks, the concepts of whiteness – and to a very great extent, American masculinity – were and are meaningless. A century and a half after the end of the war, this legacy means that large numbers of relatively affluent people (most Tea Partiers and Trumpus supporters are not working class) actually believe that they have been persecuted by people who have far less money and far less influence than they do. No matter how impoverished a white, male American feels, he still receives subtle messages every day that divide him from those our mythology designates as impure. For generations, many such men have had nothing to call their own except this privilege, yet they cling to it and support those who promise to maintain it.
The plantation owners were quite clear about this. In 1860, one of them wrote about the consequences of Lincoln becoming President:
The color of the white man is now, in the South, a title of nobility in his relations as to the negro…where menial and degrading offices are turned over to be performed exclusively by the Negro slave, the status and color of the black race becomes the badge of inferiority, and the poorest non-slaveholder may rejoice with the richest of his brethren of the white race, in the distinction of his color. He may be poor, it is true; but there is no point upon which he is so justly proud and sensitive as his privilege of caste; and there is nothing which he would resent with more fierce indignation than the attempt of the Abolitionist to emancipate the slaves and elevate the Negroes to an equality with himself and his family.
This shouldn’t obscure three facts. Northerners were also deeply racist; slavery supported many of their largest businesses; and it was deeply integrated with the global economy. But it ought to help us understand why the deep insecurity of Southern whites (and those in the western states they later populated) would be so easily manipulated by cynical politicians throughout the decades that followed the war. It should help us understand why whites from all sections of the country agreed to prematurely end Reconstruction in favor of a new myth of a reunited America, and why they tolerated or ignored racial discrimination for so long.
The South’s objective of preserving slavery failed, but only in a strictly legal sense. For decades, millions of African Americans remained on the land as virtual slaves working as sharecroppers, unable to better their conditions and terrorized by the constant threat of violence.
Well before the advent of Trumpus, these same forces have been reasserting the old conditions. As I have written, the myth of American Innocence is rapidly collapsing, and the search for scapegoats has intensified. Those conditions didn’t disappear in 1865. The mythological sources of white rage persist. In 2021, white males are more scared about the loss of their privileges, more anxious about their own masculinity, more willing to blame others and angrier than ever.
Academics have traditionally portrayed the South as an exception to the grand story of liberal American progress. Others argue that racial strife, police brutality, mass shootings, urban massacres, economic backwardness, mass incarceration, reactionary politics, fundamentalist religion, environmental degradation, support for the military, fascination with firearms and a deep suspicion of outsiders are hardly unique to the region.
In practical terms, were these always American characteristics from the very beginning, as my book argues, or did Southern values eventually come to predominate in large swarths of the country? Could Trumpus – or either of the Bushes, or Reagan – have won the Presidency without manipulating white America’s fear of dark-skinned people, even though most of their other policies have been deeply unpopular?