Silver Rights

News, thoughts and comments on civil rights and related issues.

Friday, May 21, 2004  

News: Neo-Confederates have long reach

Since most neo-Confederate activity occurs in the South, I may sometimes mistakenly give the impression that all of it does. Not so. This week's Confederate flag in the schools story is from the Pacific Northwest.

BATTLE GROUND, Wash. -- A Battle Ground teenager was suspended from school after displaying a Confederate flag on her notebook.

Freshman Tuesday Boyd says the flag is free speech -- not grounds for suspension.

"'Well, then I will just suspend you.' And I said, 'Fine, then suspend me. It's my right to have it on there and there is no reason for you to.' And she put on the suspension note it was for defiance. But there was no reason for me to have to defy her -- she was violating my rights," Boyd told KOIN 6 News.

School policy prohibits students from wearing anything disruptive. Boyd says she will gladly remove the flag if other students find it offensive. So far, she says, only teachers have complained.

The details are too sketchy for me to trace my suspicions home. However, I can shed a some light on what likely happened. The words coming out of a young teen's mouth are not the result of listening to Avril or Britney. An adult has told her displays of the Confederate flag are acceptable and perhaps suggested she display one. That person may be a parent, friend or a newfound acquaintance affiliated with neo-Confederate movement. Usually, when a group, sometimes consisting of a dozen of more students, starts displaying theConfederate flag at school at the same time, the sudden outburst of 'heritage' can be traced to longtime white supremacist Kirk Lyons. He funds his operation, an ersatz law firm, by suing people over 'heritage violations,' often refusals to allow Confederate symbols to be displayed in public places. Public schools are a favorite target, with Lyons and his associates traveling to different states to set up such confrontations.

What about the law? It is reasonably clear. Students can be barred from wearing disruptive clothing or displaying disruptive material in other ways. The Confederate flag is among symbols that have been declared disruptive. The real intent behind its display is often to insult African-Americans. However, there is a defense. There must first be a showing that flag displays lead to problems before a school can rely on disruption as a grounds for banning the activity. The effect is that racial tensions are often stoked before any effort to disfuse them is possible. The law does not say that other students must find the symbols disuptive, so Boyd's claim that only teachers are upset is not persuasive. If this is a shakedown, the Battle Ground school district will need to establish disruption is occurring to prevail in court.

Sometimes, Lyons' group has successfully won settlements from frightened school districts. But, the group has never won a case. Its argument that the Confederate flag is an innocent symbol of 'heritage' is belied by the disruptive impact of the symbol on race relations.

Why do we see neo-Confederate activity way out here? The Pacific Northwest is as far as a person can get from the South in the contiguous United States. But, it has a history of significant immigration from the South. Much of that immigration occurred before and soon after the Civil War. White Southerners brought a deep belief in racial inequality with them. There are chapters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, monuments named after Confederate heroes' and attitudes reflective of the ante-Bellum South throughout the region. It is an open question whether these attributes have led to various types of white supremacists declaring the Pacific Northwest their homeland if their revolutions occur.

posted by J. | 11:45 PM

Thursday, May 20, 2004  

Part II: The end of racism

Kenneth Quinnell, writing at Open Source Politics, is considering white identity. An impetus for the entry is Joe Taylor's naive (I'm being generous) attack on Earl Dunovant for saying he is proud of his African-American ancestry recently. Quinnell sees much of what Taylor is blind to.

Most commonly, it's conservative white guys who don't get it, but from time to time, even liberal white guys, like Joe Taylor don't get it. They can't understand how it is that non-white male groups are allowed to organize and express their pride and it is considered to be acceptable while at the same time it is not considered to be acceptable for white men to do the same. The answer, of course, revolves around the idea of racial identity and the reality of who has power and who does not.

There is no legitimate "white identity" in the United States. Whites are the majority and always have been. Whites are in control of most, if not all, of the power centers in the U.S. and always have been. Beyond that, though, white in America have little in common. The group is diverse in ethnicity, religion, national origin, ideology, etc., much moreso than other groups. One might argue that the same could be said of African-Americans, for instance, but the argument would fail. The key reason, of course, is common experience, or, in the case of white males, the lack of common experience. White males do not have a common past -- they didn't live through slavery, Jim Crowe, patriarchal oppression, homophobia, etc. Beyond that, white males have no common interest. What is the common interest between Ralph Nader and George W. Bush? One might maintain that the common interest is to maintain control and power, but there are many, many white males who do not have control or power and are subject to the whims of the same white male power structure that everyone else is subject to.

As readers of Silver Rights know, I have been following the neo-Confederate movement for years. I first encountered it as a reporter in the South. 'Jack,' a colleague, became inebriated, not an unusual state for him, at a keg party after work one Friday. He ranted about how he deserved respect as a full-blooded white man descended from Southern aristocrats, including a Confederate general or two. The tirade ended with him throwing a chair at me, the sole non-white journalist at the paper. I dodged the chair. A friend, the only person willing to stand with me when I reported the incident to management, told me Jack was a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the local successor to the White Citizens Council. I've been collecting information about the neo-Confederate movement since. I believe history can shed light on the topic Quinnell is probing.

One of the evasions of reality members of the neo-Confederate movement engage in is the claim that slavery was not the main reason for the Civil War. A component of that evasion is to trumpet that most Confederate soldiers were not slaveowners, so they had no reason to fight for retention of a society based on the ownership of human chattel. Not true. Even the poorest white man in those states had a status much above that of any black person. Yes, there was a minority of free persons of color, but compared to even poor white people, they had next to no rights. In fact, soume states, including Virginia, required that any slave freed leave the state within one year of emancipation. The only way around the law was to get a special dispensation from the state legislature.

There were myriad ways in which the lowliest of white men trumped the most free of black men in such a society. A free black person dared not leave home without papers proving his emancipation. Even so, he was in the danger of being kidnapped and sold back into slavery. He needed the patronage of a white man to buy and sell his crops or products. One hint of not knowing his place and that patronage would be withdrawn. His testimony in court had to be confirmed by someone white. He was not allowed to vote or otherwise participate in the political process. In most cases, he had relatives who were slaves and subject to all the abuses that condition made acceptable. They included severe whippings (see photo) that sometimes resulted in deaths. With the exception of the not being able to vote unless they owned sufficient property, poor white men suffered none of these disabilities. So, the poor white Confederate soldier had something to fight for - a status that was higher than that of any black person. Though that status did not necessarily make him successful in economic terms, the yardstick usually used in capitalist societies, it did allow him certain advantages, and it allowed him to feel superior. Today, we call that something 'white privilege.'

Quinnell describes one approach for protecting white privilege in contemporary society.

When these questions come from the right, the argument usually is that minorities (or gays or women) are always getting whatever they want and that white males are losing power. This may not always be the explicit argument, but it is always implicit. White males don't want to lose power. When the white males who have no power are making the same complaints, it's because they've been hoodwinked into buying the argument of the white males in power. An example would be the poor white guy's argument that affirmative action is the reason that he didn't get a particular job, despite the fact that he has weaker qualifications or a bad attitude or the fact that he can easily find an equal job elsewhere. These guys claim that they are always losing jobs to less qualified women or minorities, yet I've never seen even one report such a thing happening here in the real world.

He is, of course, right, that nearly all economic and political power remains in the hands of white men in America. (On paper, wealth is sometimes recorded as belonging to the widows of rich men. But, the actual use of the power inherent in that wealth is usually exercised by men.) Unless they are extremely ignorant, I believe most of the people who make the argument that the 'blacks, Hispanics and women are taking over' know it is not true. Though they may not grasp the extent to which a wealthy elite runs society, they know it exists. I believe what those people are really protesting is what is happening down on the ground, not in the lofty realms of real power. Any white person who works in an urban environment must see minorities on a daily basis. He may escape to a mainly white suburb afterward, but some contact with non-whites is necessary. Though he is likely to get any position he competes with a person of color for, the mere fact that a black man or Hispanic woman is also being interviewed may feel threatening to him. In addition, the mass media has become integrated during the last three decades. Though superficial, that integration is problemmatic for the person sensitive to creeping equality. Even when he has purposely removed himself from race-mixing, all he has to do is turn on television to be 'forced' to participate in an integrated America. The sense of loss these people experience can probably be traced to such experiences.

Let's marry the past and the present. I believe Quinnell is not giving sufficient weight to the 'something' that poor Confederate soldiers were fought to keep then, and not particulary privileged white folks seek to retain now. No, the same legally based privileges are not available to white people in our times. Though the Oregon Constitution proscribed 'Negros and mulatos' from living there well into the civil rights era, the law wasn't enforced post-1940 or so. Only one state, Alabama, still has an anti-miscegenation statute, which is, you know, unconstitutional. The neo-Confederate movement elected the current governor of Georgia, but he turned on them in regard to their pet issue -- keeping the Confederate battle flag as the state's emblem. African-Americans vote. They serve on juries. They are as free to eat at McDonald's, catch a flick at the Regency or have a tryst at the Hilton as white people.

Yet, despite the progress, there are tangible rewards derived from being white. Some of them are big -- a better education, a higher income, living longer. But, the smaller differences matter, too. Race still stymies the day-to-day activities of people of color. For example, the black consumer is more likely to be stopped by the police while driving to McDonalds. The movie the African-American views is unlikely to reflect American society as he knows it. If the tryst at the Hilton is with a white partner, brows will be raised and prostitution may be suspected. No white person is subject to any of these humiliations to the extent a black person is. I believe that indicia of privilege such as these are part of what the white person who values white privilege is protecting today. If one can walk through a department store without being followed by security guards and one's African-American peer can't, one is reassured of one's superior status in society. People like to feel superior. Some, perhaps most, white people like the reassurance that they are superior they get as white persons in American society every day. They don't want to surrender it. More than a century ago, similar people fought a war for a feeling, basically. We should not be surprised that the feeling, white privilege, still exerts a strong influence. I believe Kenneth Quinnell is 'warm,' as we used to say in a children's game. But, he has not quite identified why white identity still matters.

Reasonably related

Read "Part I: The end of racism" here.

Is it wrong for a person of color to say he is proud of his roots?

The best site on the Internet for information about the neo-Confederate movement is Ed Sebesta's Neo.

posted by J. | 12:03 PM