Why the War of Race Persists in America
The tragic shooting that took place in Charleston, South Carolina last week was not some anomalous event, neither the rare appearance of a bigoted devil in the midst of angel-pure America. It was the latest occurrence in a cultural war of race that has been alive in this country since well before the Confederates started bombing Fort Sumter to begin the Civil War. And as John Stewart put it on the Daily Show, “We still won’t won’t do jack s*** . . . yeah, that’s us.”
Current concessions among southern states to take down Confederate flags notwithstanding, Stewart remains sure that the status quo will remain. The political left will decry near-systematic racial inequality as the right tries to isolate the the incident and say that the wounds of America’s racist past are exaggerated, the massacre itself slowly fading into a distant blip in the rear-view mirror. Then, there will be a pause during which other issues will dominate the news (like today’s Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage) until another tragedy happens, and the cycle repeats.
Now that we know what is probably going happen, we are left with an important question we all ought to consider: why?
How Germany Overcame the Holocaust
To answer this question, I’m going to point you to post-war Germany in 1945. Hitler’s Third Reich had fallen, and with it, the secrecy of the Holocaust. There wasn’t a widespread social media campaign to raise awareness, but information got out slowly about what the Nazis had done to the Jews and others in the months and years following the war. The Germans, most of whom either had no idea of what had happened or had ignored the signs of what had taken place at the very least because of its unfathomable horror, were forced to acknowledge, if only briefly, the terrible things that were done in the name of Hitler’s vision for Germany.
Then, as quickly as awareness came, it vanished, but not to be replaced with German nationalism. The people suppressed their desire to be proud, the nagging memory of genocide ever-present. Despite being a large and industrious people, West Germany having risen to be one of the five largest economies in the world by 1960, pride in being German was synonymous with being a Nazi. German law itself, as well as its political process, was written to ensure that minority movements like Hitler’s Nazism would not be able to get any representation in German parliament. There were capitalists and communists, and most everything in between, but there was little wind in any German nationalist movement.
With German reunification in the 90’s, the German people began to openly acknowledge the wounds of the Holocaust, something described by historians as a sort of national mourning period, a time of repentance after a long time of subdued shame. It was vital for Germany as the century ended to put its past behind it. Doing so took much effort and a great deal of soul searching.
It is only now with Millennials that some Germans are becoming proud again of their country in a nationalist way, and mostly just the younger ones. I’ve discussed this at length with my 17-year-old German cousin, who finds it a strange change in dynamics. Still, even this pride from the German people is muted, a sort of reverence for the kind of genocidal horrors that dogmatic self-worship and feelings of supremacy can produce.
My point is that Germans are now only 70 years later feeling able to have pride in their nation and heritage, of which they have much to take pride in. German history is filled with so much richness, even recent history, and they ought to be able to honor where they came from. They were in a way held hostage for decades by the vile choices some of their ancestors made, but the national shaming they endured resulted in something important: being proud to be German could finally be separated from being a racist Nazi zealot.
How the South Never Got Over Slavery
It has been nearly 150 years since the end of the American Civil War and slavery, yet where are we? At the very least, we are living in a country in which the socioeconomic fallout from slavery is still a serious issue. A great problem in America is that while most minorities were able to climb out of the bottom of the American caste system in the decades following their periods of immigration, African Americans were not.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, several waves of immigrants hit the United States, from continental Europeans and Irishmen, Scotsmen, and Welshmen to people from all over Asia. These groups were generally treated poorly by privileged colonial Americans when each first arrived, but pathways to prosperity and the growing American dream slowly emerged for them. This simply didn’t happen for freed slaves after the Civil War, which brings me back to the Germans.
When the Confederacy lost the war, there was no systematic shame or soul searching like occurred in Germany. The South was devastated it lost the war, but there remained pride in the losing side along with strong feelings of racial supremacy and dissatisfaction that African Americans were to be granted civil liberties. Instead of repentance, the southern states strove to maintain the order of things, something entirely absent in post-war Germany, and as a result, the hatefulness, bigotry, prejudice, and racism were perpetuated into new legal structures.
As the South reconstructed, the North gave up on its ambitions to fix the racial divide and compromised, allowing southern states reintroduced into the Union to set up their own systems that kept whites on top of political and public life, these various institutional arrangements referred to as Jim Crow laws. These laws didn’t just seek to keep blacks out of public office or from voting, but also served as roadblocks for African Americans in business, education, and all levels of public life. The “equality” guaranteed by the newly ratified amendments to the US Constitution simply didn’t happen.
The Civil Rights Movement was necessary to begin fixing this. African Americans hand no other choice but to make fearless leaps at the risk of torture and threats to family and life to start upending such an oppressive system, every step being met with hateful resistance. There was little apology in most southerners for this bigotry, little shame for the terribleness of the South’s slavery past and the blatantly unjust systems that replaced it.
Fortunately, the movement made significant gains and paved the way for a better society, one in which the equal rights of all are more honored than at any point in American history. But the way that liberty had to be earned, the way that a race of people was oppressed for far too long, has resulted in a perpetual state of cultural warfare rather than a peaceful reunion.
Answering Why The War of Race Persists
Conflict between whites and blacks in America continues greatly because there was hardly any repentance nor much reconciliation after the Civil War. As I described, there was instead pride, the kind that comes from feeling genuinely superior to another human being. But those who should have been shamed for the horrors of slavery instead perpetuated the prejudice behind it for another century, unlike the Germans who were forced into prolonged state of reflection for what only some of them had done.
I don’t mean to be overly critical of the South in the 1800’s. The Holocaust happened a century later when liberal ideals concerning equal rights were much more developed, albeit not equally applied. These ideas were in even greater infancy during the Civil War, a time when women also couldn’t vote or do many other things. Having said that, it doesn’t change the consequences of Jim Crow laws and systems, consequences that go far beyond simple prejudice.
The racial tension that exists now is a lot more complicated than its origins. There are no more former slave owners around, nor those who set up Jim Crow systems. Most who fought militantly against the Civil Rights Movement are also gone if not up there in years. The prejudices behind the stigma of race are no longer simply about feelings of supremacy, at least not generally. Rather, they stem from issues relating to poverty and economics as well. Crime, for instance, is prevalent among blacks in America because they were forced for over a century to remain in the economic cellar, and poverty breeds crime. Such factors inform the biases of law enforcement as they try to do a job that requires them to risk their lives on a daily basis, as well as those of middle-class Americans, many of whom don’t face issues of race on a frequent basis.
Yet despite the origin of these problems having taken place 150 years ago, the blame for the current social and socioeconomic sufferings of African Americans is often heaped upon this current generation of Americans. As a result, whites, particularly those in the South, are in many ways not allowed to honor their heritage because that heritage is tied to racism, bringing us once more back to Germany. I wrote that Germans were forced to feel the full force of shame for the Holocaust. The reward after seventy years of hushed reverence was that Germans can begin being proud of being German without being considered Nazi racists. This is not so for southerners, whose heritage was never divorced from a dark, racist past.
Because of this, the symbols of old southern heritage mean different things to different people. Stewart points this out as he outlines his frustration that the streets in South Carolina are named after Confederate generals and that people in the South still respect and honor the Confederate flag. He decries how insensitive and bigoted this all is, but that’s not a completely accurate evaluation of what is going on. Just like the Germans have a rich history beyond what Hitler did in a few short years, there are things relating to southern heritage to be proud of. Indeed, all cultures should find pride in where they came from and pay homage in appropriate ways.
We Americans honor George Washington as America’s highest father, the great general and first president. He shares a prominent place alongside Abraham Lincoln in our history, but there is one notable difference between them. While Lincoln sought to free slaves, George Washington had them. Yet we revere Washington, though he was not much different of a man from Robert E. Lee, the general of the Confederate armies. Neither Lee nor Washington was fighting just to preserve slavery. They were each Virginians bound by honor to protect the liberties of their state. The Confederacy, I remind you, believed in a form of government in which states and the federal government were equal, which is no longer the case in today’s America.
Celebrating heritage is something that is generally positive and ought to be encouraged. The struggle right now is that most of us don’t know or understand the difference between celebrating heritage and being inconsiderate, nor do most social commentators. Sometimes things are decried as being racist or prejudiced when they aren’t, something apologists are all too eager to point out. Many who criticize whites, for instance, lump different groups of Caucasian Americans together as though all Caucasian heritage is equally responsible for the plight of African Americans. I myself am from Utah, a state founded by religious exiles who were hunted, murdered, and cast out of the United States in the 1830’s-40’s for, among other reasons, following the prophet Joseph Smith, who was himself an abolitionist. It’s hardly fair to treat all whites the same, just as it would be to do so to blacks, unless that sameness was in the name of true equality.
Let me give an example of something that could properly be interpreted as inconsiderate, even racist. Recently, a minor league baseball team was planning a Caucasian Heritage Night, but public outcry caused them to quickly cancel the event. Rightly so, and this is why: there is no singular Caucasian heritage. African-American heritage honors the struggle of people whose ancestors were taken from their homeland and forced into centuries of servitude. It doesn’t celebrate all blacks in the world, nor should it. Celebrating that your skin is a certain color is wrong. But we in this country honor various Caucasian heritages with regularity, like St. Patrick’s Day for Irish heritage or Oktoberfest for German heritage. We simply don’t see it as an issue of race because isn’t, nor should it be.
The lesson is simple: celebrate actual heritage, not something that can only gratify a feeling of racial pride.
But some whites do come from the South, and the symbols of that heritage like the Confederate flag are, as I have said, considered racist because there was never a line drawn between southern pride and the wrongs of slavery. Instead of humbly accepting the equality of blacks, generations of southerners fought against the proper expansion of civil rights. Even if the symbols of southern heritage that were enlisted in those causes, like the Confederate flag, are no longer symbols of racial supremacy to whites in the South, they are to the descendants of those who suffered under Jim Crow laws and separate but equal institutions.
In sum, the sins of the fathers, of slave owners and Jim Crowers of the South, are being heaped on the current generations of America, even those who have no ties to South. And while whites coming from many other heritages, be they Irish, German, or whatever, are able to take pride in where they came from, southerners cannot in the same way. The symbols of their heritage represent a festering wound in the body of America, a disease of racial warfare that plagues this country both above and below the surface. A sin for which repentance never took place, and so the American body as a whole now suffers in a struggle seemingly with no end in sight.
Where Do We Go From Here?
I don’t believe it is fair that southerners are unable to be proud of who they are or where they come from using the symbols that matter most to them, but I also don’t believe it was fair that blacks had to endure all manners of cruelty to push through countless racial barriers during the 20th century. Perhaps it is a consequence of Jim Crow that the descendants of the Confederacy are forced to bear the consequences of their unwillingness to change and treat freed slaves as equal children of this earth.
The cultural and racial warfare of today reminds me of bodily infection in the age before antibiotics were discovered. In those old days, there was little a physician could do for a patient with an infection other than wait. The resulting fever would either see the person through to health and recovery, or it would kill them as the infection took over the rest of the body.
Similarly, I fear that there is no antibiotic, no antidote we will willingly take for the disease, the schism of race in America. Rather, the body, America’s people, must endure illness and infection and hope that the angels of man’s better nature will see it through this fever of conflict to a better era of tolerance and tranquility. But that same fever could also destroy us as a nation, as a people.
Yet there is a hope, I feel, for America today, and that hope is humility. The willingness to forgive the wrongs of the past, to truly reconcile ourselves to one another, to forgive and forget. It is harsh and unjust to lie the sins of the past on the people living today. If we could start over by going to some new uncharted world and beginning as equals, I like to think we would, but we are instead in the old world, the one where we are frequently reminded of what happened in crueler times. Here it is much harder to forgive and forget, but if we truly want peace, we must humbly choose that route collectively, both as individuals and as a nation.
But I fear that humility is an attribute increasingly lacking in today’s America. It might be impossible to expect children to willingly pay for the sins of their fathers, or for the descendants of those hurt to forgive the debt without requiring great concessions. I don’t know what will happen, I’m just an observer of a societal war gone terribly wrong.
I doubt there will be much change in people’s hearts over the short term, as I said before, but I didn’t promise a solution, though I did provide the possibility for one. I promised to explain why this cultural war of race goes on, and I think that I’ve done so in a way that makes more sense than anything else I’ve ever heard.