Can we distinguish between Southern pride and racism?
According to a recent HuffPost poll, 42% of white Americans see the confederate flag as a symbol of Southern pride while a mere 28% call it a symbol of racism. With African Americans, as you might expect, the response is the mirror opposite, with 83% describing the flag as racist and only 5% associating it with Southern pride.
White respondents were almost three times as likely as African Americans to offer non-committal answers such as “neither” or “don’t know.” Nothing surprising there either.
Nor should you be shocked to learn that respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 were less than half as likely to associate the Confederate flag with Southern pride as those 65 and older. Or that 69% of Republicans associate the rebel flag with Southern pride as compared with 17% of Democrats comports with common sense.
Is it even possible to draw a bold line between racism and Southern pride?
For starters, what is Southern pride? Full disclosure: although I have lived in Kentucky for 10 years and then Texas for 20, I grew up in Canada. That said, I learned to love a version of Southern culture, if only from a distance. While still a teenager I fell in love with traditional country music through the likes of Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, Doc Watson and Merle Travis. As a high school student, I was strumming and singing songs like “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down” that were inspired by a hip version of Lost Cause nostalgia.
“Even the best of white Southern culture is shot through with the stain of systemic racism.”
Southerners have a lot to be proud of. The writing of Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Conner and William Faulkner is celebrated largely because it wrestles with the glory and the shame of a unique region of America. When people speak of Southern pride, they have in mind the sort of ethos Cracker Barrel restaurants attempt to evoke: log cabins, trudging barefoot behind a mule, a staple diet of beans and cornbread, mountain music, honky-tonk bars, moonshine whiskey and the hardware store on the town square.
The world evoked by Country music hardly exists anymore. And, increasingly, the small-church, rural revivalism with its gospel quartets and dinner-on-the-grounds is also receding into the mists of time. Those who grew up in this environment remember it fondly, but we are beginning to realize that all things Southern bear the indelible stamp of white supremacy. We didn’t talk much about race in our white churches, because we didn’t have to. But, through our silence, Southern white evangelicalism embraced and reinforced the unspoken canons of white supremacy.
A technical distinction can be made, I suppose. A Confederate enthusiast might say, “I repent the sins of slavery, Jim Crow racism and white supremacy in sackcloth and ashes. But when I see a Confederate memorial or gaze upon the stars-and-bars flapping in the Southern breeze, I’m thinking about down-home cooking, NASCAR, Johnny Cash and sweet tea. Race has nothing to do with it.”
I would argue that, as commonly used, the term “Southern pride” is shorthand for a stubborn refusal to admit that the South, as a concept, is hopelessly enmeshed in the canons of white supremacy.
Sure, there is far more to “the South” than racial bigotry, the civil war, slavery and a never-in-a-thousand-years commitment to racial segregation. But here’s the problem. Even the most beautiful and admirable features of traditional Southern culture are hopelessly tangled in, and tainted by, a history marked by slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, lynch mobs and the loathsome tenets of white supremacy.
Ask a randomly selected sociologist or American historian if the phrase “Southern pride” can be considered apart from the tragic racial history of the region and you will be met with a blank stare.
Until 1980, Mississippi schoolchildren were indoctrinated in a species of Lost Cause propaganda that celebrated the Confederate soldier, focused on the war crimes perpetrated by the northern aggressor during the Civil War and downplayed the horrors of slavery while insisting that the South’s peculiar institution had nothing to do with “the war of northern aggression.”
As late as 2018, a mild form of Lost Cause hagiography was being fed to the school children of Texas.
And I’m not just talking about uneducated Southern white people. Even Flannery O’Conner, who was unsparing in her depiction of racist characters in her writing, was unable to transcend her social world. In a letter written short weeks before her death, she confessed to a friend that “I’m an integrationist by principle & a segregationist by taste anyway. I don’t like negroes (sic). They all give me a pain and the more of them I see, the less and less I like them. Particularly the new kind.”
“Young people, by and large, assume the reality of white privilege and systemic racism; their parents, for the most part, do not.”
The remark lands with a horrible predictability. But O’Conner couldn’t have revealed the hidden depths of her culture with such pitiless accuracy if she was not of it. Which is why I say that even the best of white Southern culture is shot through with the stain of systemic racism.
I am thrilled with the prospect of Confederate monuments losing their place of prominence in Southern communities. I cringe every time I see a Confederate flag waving from a rural farmhouse or sprouting like dandelions in rural cemeteries. But I was raised by parents who taught me the principle of racial equality. As a schoolboy I was taught to detect and deconstruct racist propaganda. It was part of the curriculum.
I attended Canadian schools during the civil rights era. When I was in the fifth grade, my home room teacher remarked on the evils of Southern segregation and my young Sunday school teacher attended a civil rights march deep in Dixie and returned to tell us about it.
We Canadians defined ourselves in contradistinction to the white sinners down South, but we were hardly woke. Blissfully unaware of our white privilege, we looked down our noses at the First Nations population (then called “Indians”) while living in what was then a largely monochrome culture. We weren’t perfect, but we were largely protected from the blight of Lost Cause mythology.
When people my own age tell me that slavery was the best thing that ever happened to the Africans brought to this country or that African Americans in the South were much happier in the days of Jim Crow than they are now, I push back gently. These lessons were learned in school and, until very recently, reinforced by Southern religion, Southern politics and Southern high schools. My arguments don’t stand much of a chance.
Which explains why Louie Giglio, a megachurch pastor from Atlanta, recently argued that the phrase “white privilege” should be rendered “white blessing.” “We understand the curse that was slavery, white people do,” Giglio said, “and we say ‘that was bad,’ but we miss the blessing of slavery that it actually built up the framework for the world that white people live in and lived in.”
It sounds lame to say the man didn’t know any better, but … he didn’t know any better.
Everybody was talking about the “generation gap” back in the 1960s when I was a teenager. The phrase was moth-balled for a few decades, but it’s back with a vengeance. A solid majority of Boomers insist that the Confederate flag has nothing to do with race while an overwhelming majority of Americans under 30 believe the opposite.
Young people, by and large, assume the reality of white privilege and systemic racism; their parents, for the most part, do not.
It is possible that the younger generation will grow more conservative with age. Didn’t the Baby Boomers who marched against the Vietnam War vote overwhelmingly for Donald Trump? Not really. The young people associated with protests and the Summer of Love were hardly representative of their age cohort. Those activists in today’s multiracial movement calling for systemic reform do represent their generation.
“Only when a healthy dash of repentance is stirred into the white Southern mix is there anything to celebrate.”
Our current generation gap isn’t just about racial discourse, but that’s where the disconnect is most glaring. Once your eyes are opened to the most distressing aspects of American history these things cannot be unseen. For a time, in fact, it is hard to think or speak of anything else. Which is why the term “woke,” though teetering now on the verge of cliché, has gained such currency.
The kids in the street, black and white, who are calling for police reform and an end to systemic racism, are appalled by Lost Cause nostalgia. They find it laughable, and they intend to replace it. One day, perhaps in my lifetime, they will succeed.
Why can’t white Southerners celebrate their heritage like everyone else? One might as well ask why, in the aftermath of the Third Reich, German citizens deleted the first verse of their national anthem, Deutschlandlied, which begins “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” (Germany, Germany above all). The words, originally written to celebrate German unification, were too closely tied to the Third Reich to be sung in a post-Holocaust world.
There’s something unseemly, even cringe-worthy, about ahistorical celebrations of culture that are shot through with denial.
Confession first. Then let the celebration begin. Only when a healthy dash of repentance is stirred into the white Southern mix is there anything to celebrate.
The emerging generation isn’t into celebrating cultural heritage. In fact, it isn’t into us/them distinctions in general. They believe passionately in equality, fairness and justice. That’s why they’re in the streets, even in predominantly white communities, chanting George Floyd’s name.
The protests will eventually ebb as protests always do. But we had best get used to the demand for racial justice and radical change because it isn’t going away. The Lost Cause is losing ground, and one day in the not-too-distant future it will be nothing more than a historical curiosity.
We’re not there yet. Not even close. But we’re moving in the right direction, and that’s what gives me hope.
Related opinion from our archives:
Bill Leonard | Lost Cause religion: a zombie mindset (September 2017)