My friend Samantha is really really smart. She hired me into my current company (but that is not what makes her smart) and over the last several years I have learned a lot from her. Among other things, Samantha has the unique ability to cut through all the “noise” (read, ‘bullshit’) surrounding an issue and zero in on the actual problem. She is able to look at a situation, place it in context and decide which battle to fight. Oh – and she is really really funny. I love to listen to her when she’s really irritated because that is when the ‘funny’ and the business savvy come together.
So I was not surprised when I thought of Samantha yesterday while I watched the coverage of the Charlottesville protests and the fall out from the vehicular attack on the protestors. I could absolutely see her walk up to David Duke or any one of the other white supremacists and ask, “Ok, what problem are you trying to solve here? We are all here on a hot Saturday afternoon in August. I’m sweating, you’re sweating, you’ve got the media and the police’s attention. How do you envision this playing out? How does it end”
No doubt the Grand Wizard would respond with “We are here to take our country back,” at which point I would enter the scene. “That is not a problem to solve nor is it a solution. It is barely a ‘means’ to an end. The lady is asking you, ‘what problem are you trying to solve'” I am not entirely sure how the conversation goes from there because HELLO, these people were armed and ready for battle. Of course, there would be a lot of swearing, and the supremacists would say a few things too. But at the end of the day, I doubt that we would come away with anything tangible and certainly, nothing to solve.
CNN posted an interesting story today entitled “Who are white nationalists and what do they want?” The author talked a lot about their beliefs and the other “labels” used to reference a loose coupling of far right groups under the common banner of “Alt-Right.” Journalists and writers describe what white nationalists are against; multiculturalism, miscegenation, civil rights and egalitarianism. They see everything cloaked as one of these dangers meant to bring on America’s destruction. But when it comes to what these people are “for” it gets sketchy. There is certainly the desire to return to an earlier time in which male white domination of society was the norm. Some speculate (as this CNN article does) that far right white nationalists want to purge the country of anyone of color; to create two separate nations. Still, others want to tie all of a society’s woes to the point at which traditional social norms broke down. (One should be clear though – the social norms are defined by the alt-white and the time and cause of their breakdown are also. I doubt that mainstream historians would agree).
What everyone seems to agree on is that what binds these groups together are a hatred of multiculturalism and social change. We can dress them up as citizens who just want to preserve Southern culture and history, but that could be done easily in a book or in a recipe. Consistent among all of these groups is that blame for society’s problems and perhaps more appropriately “their” individual problems is the fault of “others.” Others are to blame for their lack of economic advancement. Others are to blame for not getting the job they desire. Others are to blame for their failures. Because when you can blame the “others,” you excuse your own responsibility and you abdicate control. Actions happen TO you. They are the victim.
A long time ago, I read an article or a book that described the social structure of the Old South prior to the Civil War. In that world, the majority of the wealth (land and money) was held by a small percentage of the population; the plantation owners. In addition to the slave population, there was a lower class group of farmers and poor whites. Now in other western societies, including the northern states, industrialization drew people from rural communities to the cities where individuals would sell their labor (typically for extremely low wages and poor working conditions) to factory owners and industrialists. This transition which eventually (over many generations) led to a larger and wealthier middle class that kept society stable in that those on the bottom rungs could look to climb up to the middle and the middle to those higher and richer. In societies where the “capitalist” drive took hold and movement between classes was encouraged, reforms tended to happen within the system rather than via violent revolution.
But southern society did not have the same level of industrialization, nor did it have a strong middle class. There were a lot of reasons why the South developed as it did – many of which we still see evident today. For the Southern social structure to remain as it did for as long as it did (well into the mid 20th century), we have to understand why the lower and poorer white classes allowed such vast wealth to be held by such a small percentage of the population. There never seemed to be a challenge to the oligarchy’s authority and instead, as we saw during the Civil War, poor farmers were willing to die for a social structure and regime in which they themselves would not benefit.
Why? How did Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and all those plantation owners get poor farmers to leave their homes and their families to fight for an economic system that left them disadvantaged and immobile? How did these same elites and their descendants resume the status quo after Reconstruction ended in 1877? It’s actually rather simple: the ruling class pitted poor whites against slaves and then later, against poor blacks. Small impoverished whites may not be rich and they may not own land, but at least they were not slaves. And then after the Civil War, the poor remained poor, but at least “they were not black.”
Pitting social classes against one another and driving wedges between natural allies is a time honored tradition. But in the United States (and not just the South), the history of slavery – and its impact on our social structure has never been fully vetted or accepted. When the Civil War ended, the goal was to reconstruct southern state governments in order to re-establish the union. There were multiple “plans” but none of them contained the steps necessary to change racial attitudes. We have this idea that as soon as Lee surrendered to Grant and the amendments passed to the Constitution, that white Americans accepted black equality or at best, supported educational and economic reforms to help freedmen achieve it. None of that happened and as blacks entered into the Great Migration in which millions left the deep south for northern cities, the same attitudes prevailed. “I may not earn a lot of money, but at least I’m not black.”
When Dylan Roof walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Columbia South Carolina, he did so with a gun, hate and a belief that he was superior to the black parishioners worshiping in Bible study. The hundreds of Nazi’s and white supremacists that took to the street in Charlottesville to protest the removal of a piece of concrete did so because their intrinsic value depends on someone else – some other group – being subservient. I do not know any white supremacists or neo-Nazi’s; at least I do not think I do. But I do have a stereotype in my mind: young, ignorant, lazy white kids that still live in their parent’s basement OR older, ignorant lazy white people that used to live in their parent’s basement. Their lack of success; their lack of social mobility has to be blamed on someone else because otherwise, they would have to reflect inward and realize that their station in life has very little if anything to do with skin color. It has everything to do with intelligence and work ethic.
Now the organizers of these rallies – the ones who spread this venomous bile on the internet – they have another motive. And I bet that if Samantha asked one of them, “what problem are you trying to solve,” we would eventually get to their goal. Money. Oh yes, money makes the world go around and these people have a product to sell. Their blogs and websites generate revenue based on advertiser clicks and traffic. Post something provocative and watch the cash flow in. Owners and writers on these sites have one primary motive and that is, “to make a living off of the “hate and bigotry.” God Bless Capitalism!!
Now I have no doubt that David Duke and his posse believe the garbage they spew. Duke’s bluster has gone back decades, way before the internet offered an opportunity to monetize it. But let’s make sure that we see this for what it is: stupid and ignorant people who did not want to put in the effort and do the work necessary to have a shot at the American Dream. Rather than admit personal responsibility, they lash out. But I guarantee you if they got their way and America split into separate countries; one for blacks and one for whites, it would not be long before those same ignorant souls started to blame a cohort within their own ranks for their destitution.
Samantha has another saying and it is one that I too have used. “You can’t stop progress kids. Never in the history of anything have we ever gone backward. So this might be a good time for you to just suck it up.” (The last sentence is mine….)
The way we fight this is with education and discussion. I hope every parent talks to their children (at an appropriate age of course) about events in Charlottesville and others like it. Again it has to be at the right age, but kids should know and understand our racial history and understand that many times we fell short of our ideals. Kids should know why Ferguson erupted in 2014; that yes, it was triggered by a police shooting of a black kid but that before any of the facts were known, the community blew up because of their long, difficult history with the predominately white police department. Kids should know that yes, in 2017 Americans of color can have a completely different experience than those of us who are white. And finally, kids should know that attitudes of racial superiority and denigration of others is completely unacceptable.
The media today is making a lot over President Trump’s statement yesterday. Again I say: “what did you expect?” Trump is a horrible president but he could say all the right words and still, given his history it would not be enough. He simply lacks the moral authority to speak on this issue. And as long as Steve Bannon, Steve Miller and that Gorka guy work in the White House, Trump will never gain credibility he needs to earn the trust of communities of color. And not just the “radical left” (a category in which apparently a lot of people fall into, or so says the right) but mainstream, centrist Americans.
But also remember the backlash that President Obama received when he made comments about or responded to acts of racial violence. He was unique in that he could see himself and those in his family on the other side of the police barricades. But whenever he made a statement that included what the community of color might feel or how they might perceive the situation differently, he was attacked by the right for not supporting the police and first responders. Let me say that again: the President of the United States, the first black American to hold that position, shared publicly what it is like to be a black man in America and got pummelled for it.
America has a race problem and we have for a long time. That problem has many branches and sometimes we dwell too much on a single issue without understanding the root cause. I think the root cause is easy to identify but hard to address; and that is, our history of slavery and its effects on all aspects of society. We did not come to terms with it after the Civil War nor after the civil rights movement in the 60s. But as a result of Dylan Roof, we might be now.
From what I understand, these monuments to the old Confederacy sprung up in the south as blacks gained influence, protection, and voting rights. These statues of Confederate ‘heroes’ were placed there not to remember history but to intimidate blacks. Under the auspices of “preserving our history and culture,” the Confederate flag was flown across the south and on public grounds. Parks and streets were named after prominent generals. And yet, the question should have been “is this culture and history worth preserving?”
The alt right has many labels but they all have the same philosophy. White Americans are superior because of their skin color alone. It has nothing to do with brains, fortitude, hard work or luck. Superiority and one’s place in society are predestined based on pigmentation. Hell, if that were true, I would be Queen of the Universe and not some 44-year-old sitting at home on a Sunday night posting to her blog.
In the end, Samantha is right. Society has never stopped progress and we have never gone backward. The smart thing to do is to get on the train and accept that with change comes opportunity. We will see more of these protests as governors, mayors and city councils across the south remove these monuments to the Old South and the culture it bred. But I hope that in time the next generation will look at the question of race and ask the same question that Samantha did. “What problem are we really trying to solve?”
Amy, August 2017