The ugly events of Charlottesville arrived as a shuddering reminder that the cancer of white supremacy continues to fester in America — and not just at the level of a few hundred knuckle dragging racists marching with Confederate flags. On the contrary, it is rooted in the country’s very foundations and is wedded into the fabric of its society and culture.
Seen in this light, the US Confederacy was not the aberration that liberals and progressives in the country like to believe. It was merely the most ugly manifestation of the nation’s founding principle of ‘white is right’. That being said, if ever a cause was unworthy it was the cause of the US Confederacy; if ever a cause was righteously defeated in battle it was this one; and if ever a flag was and is an insult to human decency and dignity, it is the Confederate flag.
The mere fact this is still being debated in the United States, that there are those who continue to accord a nobility, valour, and romanticism to the Confederacy — regarded wistfully as the ‘Lost Cause’ to its adherhents — this is evidence of the deep polarisation that divides a society which is yet to fully come to terms with its legacy of slavery, racial oppression, and brutality. Four million human beings — men, women, and children — were owned as chattel by the start of the US Civil War in 1861. They were bought and sold, raped, beaten, tortured and murdered upon the whim of their owners, whose barbarity has its modern equivalence in the barbarity of the followers and members of the so-called Islamic State.
When white racist fanatic, Dylann Roof, slaughtered nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina back in 2015, he unwittingly exposed the truth that the US Civil War remains the defining event in the nation’s history, which still today informs a cultural divide between North and South.
The reason for this lies not so much in the legitimacy of the Confederate/southern cause — how could a cause defined by the right to keep millions of human beings in bondage ever be considered legitimate? — but in the weakness of progressive forces in succumbing to the mythology that has been ascribed to the Confederacy, along with those who fought and died for it. And yet racial oppression, whether delivered from the gun of a mass murderer in a South Carolinian church, or the gun of a racist cop, has yet to be expunged in the land of the free, even though 150 years have passed since the Confederacy was defeated in battle.
There are historical reasons why this is so, but one in particular: namely the decision of the 18th US President, Rutherford B Hayes, to end Reconstruction as a condition of his entry into the White House with the support of southern Democrats, a tawdry political deal known to history as the Compromise of 1877. It marked the end of a decade in which so-called Radical Republicans (referred to pejoratively as Black Republicans), in control of the US Congress, had driven forward a federal programme to promote and uphold the rights of former slaves throughout the South, according them the full civil and political freedom that their status as free men and women demanded. This was necessary immediately upon war’s end, when local politicians assumed control of state legislatures across the South and enacted ‘black codes’ with the objective of keeping newly freed black slaves in as close to a state of their former bondage as was possible, refusing to grant them their civil rights or the vote.
The reaction of the North was to divide the former Confederate states into military districts and occupy them with federal troops to ensure the protection of blacks from white racists and to enforce their civil rights. This was accompanied by the demand that those former Confederate states support the passage of the three post-civil war amendments to the US Constituion — the 13th, 14th, and 15th — outlawing slavery and granting rights of citizenship and the vote to every person born in the United States regardless of race or colour in every state.
The end of Reconstruction in 1877, and the withdrawal of federal troops from southern states, resulted in the plight of blacks in said states suffering a sharp reverse. The Klu Klux Klan’s influence and power as America’s first terrorist organisation quickly made its presence felt, measured in the rise and entrenchment of white supremacy as a state and culture of segregation returned across the South. Blacks were lynched, murdered, and tortured with impunity from then on, and their status as second-class citizens entrenched.
This mindset remains a fact of life not just in the South but throughout the United States, carried in the hearts and minds of right wing Republicans and an alt-right movement that has succeeded in normalising the politics of race in recent years, whipping up division and relentlessly spewing out prejudice and racial stereotypes.
The most telling evidence of the traction that white supremacy has gained recent times is, of course, Trump’s election in 2016. The bigoted rhetoric that he unleashed against migrants, Mexicans, Muslims, and minorities during his campaign gave license to racists, white nationalists and fascists, lending their creed the kind of legitimacy that would have been unthinkable previously. And, too, when the President of the United States counts among his key advisers an icon of the alt-right movement in Steve Bannon, a man who while editor of the far right website Breitbart published material that verily dripped in bigotry, you know that white supremacy not only continues to survive in America in 2017, it thrives.
The United States, a nation founded by white supremacists and whose consitution was written by white supremacists, is now at war with itself.
Charlottesville is just the beginning.