Why We Are Where We Are

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I blame Andrew Johnson. Had Reconstruction in the post-Civil War era in American history not been such an abysmal failure, perhaps we would not be in the shape we are currently in when it comes to race relations in this country. Putting modern ignorance and our ability to be so easily distracted aside, Reconstruction was presented with a gaping wound that required surgery. Instead, they slapped a band-aid on it and called it a day. Over the last 150 years, that band-aid started to peel off, and the response has been to keeping pushing it back and rubbing it down, and maybe putting a piece of tape over the ends. Now, with various race-related incidents nationwide over the last year, we are confronted with the same situation. Are we finally going to go in for surgery, or do we just put another band-aid on it? I am not getting into the Confederate Flag debate on this blog. As a Civil War scholar, I will not allow myself to stoop down to discuss what a popularized notion of the flag is, and the history that attaches itself to that. However, if you are of the mindset that simply demanding what the masses believe to be a racist symbol to come down is the answer to ending racism in this country, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you are seriously mistaken.

Racism is engrained in this country. We were founded on slave-holding and the subjugation of others. Our nation was born on the backs of black slaves and grew on the removal of Indians from their native lands. Isn’t that wonderful? Thankfully, things have gotten better for people of all kinds in this country since our inception, but racism and bigotry and bias and whatever other term you can come up with are still here. My bleak assessment is that it is unfortunately not going away anytime soon. The reason for this is our open denial of history and our refusal to attempt to learn about or understand anything inconvenient. We say we want to take time to heal things and be sensitive, but do we have the actions to back it up? Is there a grand solution that can bring this country together, healed and united as one, or are we too far-gone from that?

This blase thought that taking the Confederate Flag down, and in turn, racism will go away, is naive at the very best. But it is part of our history of just pushing things along, just to get rid of them. Out of sight, out of mind. In terms of race-relations, it began with slavery and the emancipation of the those in bondage. The great Civil War historian Shelby Foote spoke on this, saying, “Slavery was the first great sin of this nation. The second great sin was emancipation, or rather the way it was done. The government told four million people, ‘You are free. Hit the road’. Three-quarters of them could not read or write. The tiniest fraction of them had any profession they could enter.” This still echoes today, in parts of the Deep South. Reconstruction did not attempt to heal the open wounds. It did not attempt to bring a fractured nation together truly as one. It put a band-aid on the cut and moved right along.

When are we finally going to sit down and have a serious conversation about racism? When are we going to stop being so easily distracted that we will allow ourselves to be swept up in a debate over a piece of fabric when nine people were just murdered? Are we so in denial as white Americans that we have to look for something material to blame for a racist killing that we jump to stomp out a flag rather than contemplate what exactly just happened? How disrespectful is it that people have talked about the Confederate Flag on social media and in the news for longer than they memorialized the victims of this horrific crime? The most awful part of this whole thing is that the sick murderer has had his picture plastered all over the internet by people just trying to prove a point, therefore giving him more publicity than probably he even thought he would get. That’s the kind of people we are as a society. We need to see things as black and white (I’m using the figure of speech there). We deny ourselves the complexities that inconvenient events present us with. We jump on the computer and fire away our thoughts and move on. Just like we have done for what seems like forever. Has anything been accomplished in the meantime?

It is not so simple as Messala suggested in Ben-Hur to his fellow Romans in Judea, when he declared that the one way to fight an idea is with another idea. We have been fighting ideas with ideas for decades. Racism still exists. Maybe I am too negative and bleak to think that we will never win such a battle. Maybe its not the idea, but the way in which it is taught and learned. Is there a solution? It will be up to someone smarter than I to figure out.

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One thought on “Why We Are Where We Are

  1. Well said, Greg. I’ve lived long enough to realize that racism exists in the eye of the beholder, and then only when he or she chooses to interpret something that way. And just calling something racism or somebody racist doesn’t make it so — it just means the speaker thinks so. The speaker has a 50-50 chance of being accurate.

    I hope they fry that guy in South Carolina, but I also bet he’s still alive 10 years from now. I also think the whole SC flag flap should’ve been decided by SC voters, nobody else.

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