Published on March 1st, 2016 | by TLV News1
On the Depths of Willful Ignorance— A Reply to Peter Wirth
I’m pleased Peter Wirth has chosen to continue this important debate over Confederate iconography and its place in contemporary society. Unfortunately, Wirth remains committed to a position of willful ignorance first displayed in his initial letter. Despite being an academic trained in the careful consideration of evidence, Wirth ignores and distorts the historical record in order to justify the continued commemoration of white supremacy.
In his rejoinder, Wirth insists half of his original defense related to the “terrible legacy of slavery and racism.” Interesting, given that neither in his original letter nor in his rejoinder does Wirth actually consider the perspective of blacks in any era, from slavery to the present. Instead we’re given the perspectives of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Shelby Foote, and other white men. Yet, Wirth insists his version of Southern culture is an inclusive one. He then argues that by “repressing all symbols of the Old South and all sympathy for it” we will “only drive racism underground and make it more vicious.” The absurdity of this position is nearly blinding, and rests entirely upon omitting the experiences of black Americans, then and now.
As we look around Oxford, where exactly are the symbols that reflect the experiences of blacks living under white supremacy? Where is the marker commemorating the 1935 lynching of Elwood Higginbotham, a black man taken by force from the courthouse jail on the Square, driven to western edge of town, castrated, and then hung in front of a mob of nearly 150 white men, women, and children? If “history has to live with what was here,” shouldn’t consideration be given to what actually took place?
If that weren’t enough, Wirth also employs a straw man, proclaiming that those who wish to remove Confederate iconography from public space believe they know all they need to know about American history. Yet it is Wirth who omits and distorts American history for the sake of his poorly constructed position. Consider his argument that what the original designers and advocates of the Southern Cross thought about white supremacy tells us little “about what millions of white men, women, and children thought, felt, did, and suffered.” So, the designers and advocates of the Southern Cross were extremists, and lay Southerners were, what, anti-slavery? Under what delusions must one operate to subscribe to this nonsense?
The 1860 U.S. Census shows 49% of white families in Mississippi owned slaves. Across the South, it was more than 33%. White supremacy and support for the brutal regime of slavery was not an extremist position; it was mainstream. Even among those white families that didn’t own slaves, many hoped to be so fortunate. Furthermore, the use of the Southern Cross and other Confederate symbols has been far from ambiguous. Those who designed the flag and fought under its banner molded its meaning. How they, and those after them, wrote about the flag is well documented. How the flag was and continues to be used in conjunction with white racial terrorism only solidifies its clear relationship to the multiple iterations of white supremacy we have seen throughout U.S. history: from slavery, to the lynch mobs responsible for the brutal torture and deaths of more than 4,700 black Americans between 1882-1968, to Governor Ross Barnett’s insistence to a frenzied crowd of Confederate flag-waving football fans in 1962 that he would never allow the University of Mississippi to be integrated because of Mississippi’s heritage, to the tragic murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina this past summer. The flag’s meaning and use has been anything but ambiguous. To suggest otherwise is, again, disingenuous.
Wirth also insists on trivializing the importance of the very symbol he is defending on the grounds that white supremacy is only appealing to “losers with nothing left to fall back on,” and that other, far more sinister forces are where our concerns should turn: the military-industrial complex, massive wealth and income inequality, and American imperialism. I agree these are all major issues of our time. Where we disagree is on Wirth’s position that these issues are somehow unrelated, or disconnected, from white supremacy.
When Wirth mentions American imperialism and the bombing of other countries at will, he purposefully ignores that the countries we bomb are overwhelmingly populated by black and brown bodies. When Wirth mentions massive wealth and income inequality resulting from predatory capitalism, he willfully ignores the massive wealth inequality between black and white Americans. The American racial wealth gap between white and black families, last measured in 2013, is the widest it has been since 1989. The difference in net worth between a median white and black family is now more than $131,000. Twenty-five percent of black households in 2013 would have had less than $5 in reserves if they liquidated their assets, compared to $3000 for the bottom 25% of all white households.
Far from white supremacy being an ideology appealing “chiefly to resentful losers with nothing else to fall back upon,” white supremacy is thriving in the 21st century. Results from the 2014 General Social Survey reveal that 40% of white Americans rated white intelligence as well above average, whereas 28% of whites rated black intelligence as well above average. Beliefs in the inherent intelligibility of racial groups, a remnant of the same scientific racism used to justify the enslavement of black Americans, are far from appealing only to “resentful losers;” they remain pervasive. Ignoring the legacy of white supremacy and its present-day effects is both lazy from the position of a scholar, and damaging from the position of public policy.
Finally, a brief comment on Wirth’s assertion that Robert E. Lee “stood on record against slavery and secession.” No. Wirth is likely referring to a letter from Lee to his wife, in 1856. In it, Lee writes, “There are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any Country.” I imagine Wirth, like many other proponents of Confederate iconography, stopped reading the letter after that line. Had he and others continued, they would have noted Lee wrote the following:
“The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially and physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, and I hope will prepare and lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known and ordered by a wise merciful providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild and melting influence of Christianity, than the storms and tempests of fiery controversy…We must leave the progress as well as the result in His hands who sees the end; who chooses to work by slow influences; and with whom two thousand years are but as a single day.”
To paraphrase: “Gosh, slavery sure is awful. But, it’s what G-d wants. And, it’s good for black people, too. They should thank G-d, and us, for it.”
James M. Thomas (JT)
Assistant Professor of Sociology
University of Mississippi