Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Huntsville Item column

I had my own thoughts on the City Council proposal to fly a Confederate flage in Huntsville's Oakwood Cemetery, located on Martin Luther King Blvd (where I live). There's more to discuss here.

By Brandon Scott
For The Huntsville Item

HUNTSVILLE — The idea advocated by Confederate descendants and supporters is, “heritage, not hate.” Many of them insist they aren’t racists, rather celebrating Southern culture and history for those who fought for a cause bigger than themselves.

Though, discussion gets testy when identifying the actual cause the Confederacy fought for. By all accounts, attributing the Civil War’s cause to economic turmoil, state rights, or political lobbying eventually leads us back to the slavery issue. The American economy in the 19th century was heavily tied into the work of enslaved African descendants, as well as owning, selling and trading slaves.

Every logical conversation about the Civil War associates the war with slavery, which the Confederate States of America clearly supported against abolition. Secessionists believed the South was under attack by anti-slavery ideologies – that it threatened Southern independence and prosperity. Some extremists even threatened disunion at President Abraham Lincoln’s election.

Leaders of the secession movement often cited slavery as the most compelling reason for Southern independence, most notably Vice President Alexander Stephens who gave the infamous Cornerstone Speech in Savannah, Ga., claiming “subordination to the superior race was the Negro’s natural and normal condition.”

Once this part of the history is understood, an intelligent conversation can be had on the issue of whether it would be appropriate to fly a Confederate flag in Huntsville’s Oakwood Cemetery in honor of Confederate History Month and the dead soldiers buried there.

I covered this story for The Houstonian at Sam Houston State University — despite implications of a conflict of interest: I’m one of two African-Americans on the editorial staff. I was all over it anyway and promised my bosses I’d cover the story with objectivity.

However, that didn’t stop me from having a heated debate with friends on Facebook. A few of my friends are convinced that I’m obsessed with race, to the point where I’ve started to let it define me. This idea ignores my status as a student journalist, not to mention that all of my life I’ve had to peep through racial lenses to make sense of the world I live in.

Nonetheless, my friends and I disagreed on more than how much I let race define me. We disagreed on all points, including the meaning of the Confederate flag and who was to blame for American slavery. They believe the African tribes who sold other Africans to European slave traders were partly at fault.

But the inability to distinguish the Africans who sold slaves and the subsequent slave culture that became part of American society is a failure to understand the issue entirely. The popular idea that celebrating Southern culture with the symbols of the Old South does not equate to a display of racism is disingenuous and misguided at best.

While having coffee with Jerry McGinty Sr., a member of Huntsville’s Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp 226, I found the most telling part of our conversation was his acceptance of the concept of “living within society.” He told me there was nothing he could do about living in a segregated Huntsville in the 1950s, so he learned to live with it. McGinty’s view on segregation is very similar to his view on slavery.

“I didn’t live in that time,” he said carefully.

This proved to me that individual racism is the micro-level perspective of U.S. racism. In attempts to clarify themselves as nonracist, McGinty and my Facebook friends overlooked the bigger picture – that prejudices held by individuals were firmly rooted in an extensive system of racism.

What Confederate supporters fail to realize or don’t care to acknowledge, is they are products of their environment. The understanding that racial injustice defined their culture and lifestyle must be buried in a vault from centuries ago.

“It makes me mad when people start talking about slavery and the Civil War,” McGinty said.

His thoughts resembled those of my Facebook friends and those of members of this community who objected to my stance on birther conspiracy issues in a previous column.

Ever wonder why being called a racist offends people more than actual racism?

Why are my Facebook friends more bothered by race commentary than the actual evidence of racism described in that commentary? And why is Jerry McGinty more agitated by associating slavery with the Civil War than the real racism that is associated with it?

It only makes sense if one understands the social landscape of this country. We live in a “white is right” society to this day. That’s where the “learn to live with it” attitude comes from. Don’t challenge the establishment. When we start deviating from virtuous America, we’re crossing the line.

Just as my friends said, “Get over it already and stop letting it define you.”

Confederate supporters have an interesting motto — embracing heritage over hate. It’s an idea that aligns perfectly with the racial undertones in society. It misses the point – as if slaveholders cared enough to actually hate their inferior servants.

Twentieth century sociologist Oliver Cox put it best when he said, “Race prejudice is not an individual idiosyncrasy; it is a social attribute. Ordinarily the individual is born into it and accepts it unconsciously, like his language, without question.”

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