American History, Southern Identity, and the Politics of Race
If there has been one consistent aspect of racial controversies in American politics, it is that much like joining ISIS, the effort is almost certain to end in a suicide bombing, or the political equivalent. The last two years have seen a series of "own goals" by both parties, in which a controversy that initially favors one-side is rapidly overplayed, only to have the other lack the good sense to shut up while their opponents are busy self-destructing. As someone who views himself as being sensitive on racial matters, yet is an American conservative, I have had the "luxury" of seeing this closely in-hand. On the one hand, I know enough American Republicans to know that most of them are not personally racist, and that their standard reaction tot he arrival of a non-white volunteer at a local Republican office or event is one of enthusiasm and excitement. On the other, having grown up in a suburban area, and having witnessed the insular defensiveness and paranoia that typifies American Republicans, doubly so for white Southern ones, it is easy for me to see how an impartial reading of their actions would lead one to believe that they are racist against African Americans, at least implicitly. That a degree of cognitive dissonance exists, in which many Republicans like African Americans, despise Democrats and Liberals, and see Black voters as synonymous with Democrats, and their leaders as Democratic operatives goes far to explain this. It also goes far to explain too, why the modern racial controversy has taken on a tragically familiar character in which first one side, then the other, politicizes the issue to such a degree that at the end all that is left is political rancor, and absent is any real reflection on the issues at stake. Especially when the consequences of those issues are life and death in a literal sense.
The basic contours of the post-2012 "controversy" goes like this. A white male, usually either a police officer or someone with delusions of being one(ie. local security, citizens' watch) confronts a black teenager, a demographic who partly for real but regrettable reasons, and partly for fabricated racial ones, has become the symbol in the suburban white mind of anarchy, poverty and chaos. This confrontation almost invariably ends, with the black teenager dead and the white male standing over their corpse with a loaded firearm. The nation reacts with shock and horror, and for a short period even the more reactionary suburban white elements of the electorate begin to question whether the de facto freedom from petty crime they have purchased through a proactive police response to potential crime has been purchased at too high a cost. Enter the lecturing media. Not content to allow those who have supported hard-on-crime policies to reflect on the costs society has paid for them, more left-leaning elements of the media are determined to force them to confront it publicly in the form of a guilt ridden mea culpe. Salon, Buzzfeed, as well as MSNBC are full of fulminating voices, some admittedly African American, but the vast majority white, educated and wealthy, talking of institutional racism, slavery reparations, and the need to ban guns/disarm police/insert some other impossible policy. None of these policies occur, but they perform the function of causing those wavering white conservatives to retreat from south doubt into the safety of partisanship. After all, the issue is now ideological, and a Republican-Democratic, Conservative-Liberal issue like guns or crime is much more comfortable than any degree of real self-examination. That the issue has now been turned into one, usually either gun rights or local-self rule, in which the average conservative sees themselves and their identity under direct attack by Democrats and liberals only makes this transition easier.
It is at this point, where the response to a crime against an African American has been surreal transformed in the minds of many white conservatives into one in which they are somehow the victim, not the individual who is actually dead, that the second act begins. Despite repeated hand-wringing from the Republican party's own post-2012 after-action report about the need to appeal to as large an audience as possible, the Republican party has shown a remarkable ability to score own goals, not just on purely racial issues, and has even managed the spectacular feat of scoring own goals on Democratic own-goals such as the riots in Ferguson, or the pre-trial judgement in the Trayvon Martin case. In both cases, rather than reflecting on the circumstances or even seeing them as tragic mistakes, white conservatives all to often treated them like some sort of sports game, where the very fact that Democrats or liberals were celebrating Martin or denouncing Ferguson required them to take the opposite tact. Hence for reasons that make sense only within the surreal context of American racial politics, many conservatives and Republicans felt the need for some reason to turn George Zimmerman, a failed everything with a history of domestic violence and delusions of grandeur into some sort of hero, and Martin into a villain. Respectable conservative institutions like the National Review published articles praising Zimmerman, while they bought every line about Martin who was suddenly a "thug", "a criminal", "a druggy" who had jumped Zimmerman. The most implausible defense claims, including ones that had been dropped by the time of the actual trial, so implausible and incompatible with the evidence presented they turned out to be, became confirmed fact among conservatives within a matter of months. And when Zimmerman was acquitted, something that in my opinion was likely the "legally" correct outcome, they celebrated it as if their team had just won the Super Bowl.
Of course this sort of narrative setting requires cognitive dissonance. Hence Zimmerman's post-acquittal behavior, including arrests for assault, and a visit to Ferguson that could only be interpreted as a deliberate provocation, get portrayed as an effort to "get" Zimmerman. The same occurred after Ferguson, when efforts were made to defend the police chief, who while perhaps not racist, clearly ran an incompetent and partially corrupt department which saw ticketing as a means of fundraising to fill the municipal budget deficit.
I bring this up for two reasons. The first and most obvious is that we are seeing it again following the Charleston shooting. The shooting is despicable, but the focus has now shifted on the left from the shooting to a more myopic focus on the second amendment and double standard in not referring to the shooter as a "terrorist" when Muslim perpetrators are. In fairness there is some merit to the former complaint, the current system of gun proliferation ends up harming African Americans in two distinct ways, but neither of them is the manner being raised in the present debate. They exacerbate the effects of gang violence within urban communities, simultaneously making police less willing to operate there, and more trigger-happy when they do, and African Americans benefit less from the self-defense purposes of fire-arms, because juries, dominated by white suburban women, tend to be far less sympathetic to claims of self-defense from black male defendants than white ones. But the manner in which the issue is being raised, has ignored both issues in favor of re-fighting a pointless fight over the Second Amendment in abstract, and more specifically over whether or not cosmetic requirements about background checks for prospective gun buyers, or limits on the number of firearms purchased in one day could have prevented this. Answer; they could not have.
The fact that such proposals would have have had no impact on the tragic events cited as justification for their promotion, and that the lack of impact is obvious to all concerned, means that it is all too easy to see the calls for gun control as an effort to use the tragedy to advance a longstanding political cause. Hence the opposition in Colorado to background checks, not because voters opposed them per se, but because they saw behind them the financial hand of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and a plan to eliminate gun rights incrementally, not least because advocates of background checks made clear that was their goal. A similar reaction ensures to efforts to focus on the failure to label Roof a terrorist. This is a false comparison which only carries weight when one looks at it absent context. Yes Roof's actions are similar to the actions of an individual Islamic attacker, but whereas Roof appears to have acted individually and at best represents a type of like-minded individual, an ISIS suicide bomber represents an organization with global reach, which is just one part of a wider ideological/religious movement which drives insurgencies from Nigeria to the Philippines. White supremacy is not an ideological threat as it is not substantial enough to represent a challenge to even a single state, much less dozens. Hence the difference in coverage, which again makes it look as if liberal opponents of American foreign policy are attempting to engage in moral relativism and equivalency, a debate which conservatives are again always happier to have than a serious discussion of race.
Hence the debate has already descended into partisan rancor, with far too many white conservatives back in their comfort zone of fighting anti-american coastal elites, and their opponents having transformed worries about a specific problem that Americans have failed to solve into a general campaign for their party platform, a platform that is far more focused on what liberal elites want than poor African Americans.
The net result has been trench warfare, the political equivalent of the Somme. For all the hand-wringing after 2012, the Republican party is more toxic with African Americans than in 2012, and definitely more than in 2008 or 2004. This likely extends to those parts of the Hispanic population, a big qualification, who see themselves as non-white. Democrats in turn, are looked upon as even more dominated by an alliance of minority interest groups which the generic white male has little reason to support unless they are gay, or highly educated, or very poor. The net result of polarization is probably a slight win for the Democrats at the Presidential level due to demographic change, but they already started there, and there prospects of congressional control are further away than ever.
The South In American Politics
The second reason I wanted to bring up this issue, is because this type of polarization is far from unprecedented, and is intrinsically linked with the impossibility of governing the United States. One of the major reasons for the bitterness of ideological combat right now is because it is innately tied with identity. That identity is not the one people think it is. Contrary to apparent common sense, the most politically homogeneous group in American history is not African Americans but white southerns, who ever since the 1820s began to see themselves as a distinct national group. This was not in and of itself a problem, but the founding myth of America for southern whites became one of dualism, where America was not founded by Americans, but by partnership between the South and everyone else, whereby the South should have an effective veto over policy. This political belief drove US politics, and is why until 1851, the South insisted on parity in the Senate, and any effort of the national government to use its numerical majority to force its will on the favored Southern position, even if the effort in question had substantial support within the South, an unconstitutional violation of Southern "rights" and justification for secession.
The "Southern Question" in American politics was even in the pre-Civil War era never wholly about slavery, which is one reason it failed to obligingly vanish once that institution disappeared. Rather it was about the twin threats to Southern "rights" or sovereignty, namely the fear of a national majority overruling them, and the more immediate fear of becoming a minority in their own land. The fact that "Southern" meant white, and a very specific, Protestant(and in fairness given the century Sephardi Jewish) white, meant that they constantly under demographic threat and Southern politics took on the tone of Afrikaner politics in South Africa. In fact that is the proper comparison for understanding the US lost cause, namely it functions in the Southern mind much as the Boer War did in the Afrikaner one, as a national holocaust in which the Volk's enemies did everything in their power to destroy it and failed. In the case of the South, after a rearguard action, the North rejected the Union by electing a party pledged to governing without Southern support or cooperation, namely the Republicans, justifying their departure(I wrote about moderate Southern reasons for secession here) They then faced a war of conquest, followed by a military effort(Reconstruction) to make themselves a minority in their own land. Following their success, the dominant effort has been to prevent that by repressing the political opposition at home, which ends up in racially tinged gerrymandering and voting laws because that is who demographically the opposition is, as well as in taking the offensive at the national level. "Racist" policies in the eyes of Southern conservatives are hence justified not by the fact that their targets are Hispanic, Black or Asian, but because they are Democrats, and Southern Republicans today are almost ecstatic when African Americans join the party, and tend to go gaga over them as candidates, see Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina.
The problem is that this Southern defensiveness, in addition to equating electoral defeat at the state and local level with political/cultural genocide, involves effectively being able to have a veto at the national level. What the South saw as preserving a veto, the North in the 1850s saw as Southern efforts to block the settlement of the West by killing the Homestead Act and the construction of a Trans-Continental railroad, as that would lead to more Western and hence non-Southern seats in Congress. The decision to elect the Republicans in 1860 was not about slavery on the North's behalf. Rather it was a decision to get on with governing without the South, because it had proved impossible to do anything economically or internationally due to the Southern veto. The link with slavery is that it was the reason the South wielded its veto on everything else, in order to prove that it could if necessary use it on slavery. The South left because its veto was going to be gutted.
In the end, that veto is still at the heart of Southern demands. The main reason for the extreme hatred of Barack Obama is not his race, but rather that he is the first President in recent memory to govern without any "Southern" support. Yes he technically did win Florida and Virginia twice, and North Carolina once, but the votes he won in those places were non-Southern(immigrant, Northern, and Black). Obama is illegitimate not because he was not born in America, or because he is Black, or even because he is a socialist, but because he is forcing his policies through without respecting a Southern veto, given that the South whites have overwhelmingly rejected his policies four times. Furthermore, he represents what they most fear, namely that other may be able to do what he has done in the future, and even do it within the South, where white southerners may lose their absolute control over their state politics, something that has already happened in Virginia.
These fears and anxieties have manifested at the national level in much the way they did in the 1850s, namely in the South, increasingly worried about the power of its veto, wielding it in all in directions in a desperate effort to prove its relevance. But it also appears in the Confederate Flag controversy. Because the controversy is not really about the flag, but about whether the South can be forced to change it, and whether Southern identity will continue to mean Southern "white" as it has for two centuries. To abandon it in the face of Northern and media pressure would to confirm the first; to drop it themselves would be to accept the second. As the South can do neither, then there is no choice but to defend it aggressively, and as there is no good way to defend it other than to speak in meaningless phrases like "heritage" that is what is happening. The Southern position is both eminently ration internally, but completely irrational and unhinged to anyone else looking in, and most Republican leaders, having enough experience of national politics to know that, have been wise enough to stay far away, understanding that they can simultaneously not abandon it, but that it is futile to defend it. Any such defense would rely on irrational arguments.
Is the flag racist? This is kind of a silly question. Racism is a word that is thrown around too often on everything from immigration to gun control to product marketing. It is also ambiguous whether it refers to an intention or to consequence. Most Southerners, including most with Confederate flags are not knowingly racist in the sense that if they encountered an African American in a neutral(read non-Southern) setting they would behave differently, or in that they would have anything against an African American who agreed with them politically. But at the same time the vast majority support policies, spout slogans, and glamorize history that is without a doubt racially targeted. Understanding this requires grasping that Southerners first and foremost see themselves as a minority in the United States, not as a majority in their own States, and hence see efforts to preserve their political power at the state and local level in much the same way French nationalists do in Quebec. Most of those Nationalist would not be racist if they met an anglophone in Washington or London, but they nevertheless have pursued a -policy that has driven more than half the anglophone population out of Quebec over the last few decades. The same is true of Southern whites, whose politics are ultimately viewed as defensive, which means they are aimed more at preserving their own supremacy than actively bringing down anyone else. Though it might be hard for outsiders, or for local minorities, to see much of a difference.