It’s too late to do anything for Dylann Roof, because he already crossed the line. He’s charged with killing nine innocent people. So I thought I would reach out to you, the guy who says Roof shouldn’t have killed anyone, but that he has a right to be angry, a right to hate black people.
First of all, pat yourself on the back for committing not to harm anyone. That counts for a lot. Racist violence needs to be prevented at all costs, because it violates the most basic principles of democracy. And racist thoughts? They’re legal; you have a right to them.
The purpose of this letter, though, is to try to get you to examine why you have those thoughts and maybe get you to realize that you’ve been had. It must suck to see black people every day and have to dream up reasons to hate them. Worse yet, your obsession with black people prevents you from seeing who’s really screwing you over.
You say that Dylann Roof had a point when he said black people were “raping our women” and “taking over America.” But both of these assumptions are way out of touch with reality.
I’m not saying a white woman has never been raped by a black man, but it turns out to be rare in the tally of total rapes. Most crime is intra-racial: white on white, black on black, etc. You’re probably angry that white-on-black crime — especially white police on black citizens — gets a lot more media play than the relatively small proportion of crimes black people perpetrate on white victims. I’m guessing you yourself might have been a victim of a crime by a black perpetrator.
If so, I can relate because I have been, too. On the three occasions black men pointed guns in my face and threatened to kill me, the fear was so intense that it sank in and eventually turned into rage, then to a thirst for vengeance. If I had never known any other black people besides these muggers, or if I could believe that black people were never victims of crime themselves, I might have also ended up like Dylann — thinking that my assaults at the hands of black men justified fantasies of starting a race war.
I had an easier time than Dylann nipping my racism in the bud because I grew up in an anti-racist family. The N-word was a bad word in our house, and we often spent time with black family friends. I had black neighborhood friends, as well, and if you grew up in the South, you probably did, too.
Many of my white friends, on the other hand, lived in families that consciously passed down racist values. You might want to read Tim Parrish’s great memoir of growing up as a Southern racist and overcoming it, “Fear and What Follows.”
My family was not like Parrish’s. My father had revolted against much of his own family’s racism, while my mother came from a more traditionally anti-racist Southern family to begin with. (Despite the media portrayal of the South — one that bothers me as much as it bothers you — anti-racist white Southern families have always existed.)
Even given my family’s values, in my pre-teen years I drifted toward a more racist worldview, mainly because of my attraction to the Cult of the Confederacy. It’s a powerful myth in the South, though less so in South Louisiana than in much of the rest of the region. I was quite the Civil War buff. I collected books on the topic, and loved reading the battle maps. I bought Civil War action figures at a little toy soldier shop on Royal Street in the French Quarter, and put them in dioramas. We were frequent visitors to the National Military Park at Vicksburg; we toured plantation homes in Natchez.
But my biggest Confederate motivator was from Southern California: the 1939 film version of “Gone with the Wind.” My parents had been active in the Civil Rights Movement, yet in other ways they were sentimental white Southerners. They valued what they viewed as distinctive expressions of Southern nationhood. My mom, in particular, though she was and is a more uncompromising racial liberal than my father, loved that movie. She had seen it often in her youth, and it brought back happy memories of Saturday matinees in neighborhood movie palaces. I saw it mostly on TV, where it ran repeatedly.
I thrilled to the drama of having fought for a noble cause and lost, and of carrying on as a misunderstood minority. I started going around saying that my family had owned a great plantation with a hundred slaves, until the Yankees took it away from us. The dream that we were once more valued, and that someone had stolen our birthright, gave me a way to face a less glamorous reality: my mother and her three kids cramped into a one-bedroom shotgun apartment, and the long bus ride I took to a school where black schoolmates made fun of me for my cheap hand-me-down clothes.
I bought a leather-bound diary at the Vicksburg military park gift store. It had a big Confederate battle flag emblazoned on the front. But the impulse that began my infatuation with the Confederacy also put an end to it. Because as you read on in Civil War history, the real picture emerges.
My ancestors who wore the gray may have done so for noble reasons. We have no record of what they actually said or felt. But it’s clear the war wasn’t for them. It was for the same folks big wars are always for: the rich guys who sit back and preach and let other people do the dying. As soon as I realized that at the time of the Civil War over 80 percent of the white South had never owned a slave, I knew who had really screwed over my people. It wasn’t Yankees, and it damn well wasn’t black people.
Why have so many working white people in the South embarrassed themselves by stepping and fetching for the same masters who lorded it over the black people? At least the black people had the guts to call them out on it.
Ask Confederate Veteran Sam Watkins, who wrote in his Civil War memoir how he felt when the Confederate government exempted slaveholders from the draft: “A law was made allowing every person with 20 negroes to go home. It gave us the blues. … There was raised the howl of rich man’s war, poor man’s fight. From this time on till the end of the war a soldier was simply a machine, a conscript. All our pride and valor had gone and we were sick of war and cursed the Southern Confederacy.” It’s no wonder that Confederate desertion rates shot through the roof after 1862 — little over a year into the war. But it shows that our Confederate ancestors were smarter than “Gone with the Wind” propaganda portrays them to be.
If you like movies, skip “Gone with the Wind” and see “Cold Mountain,” based on the 1997 Civil War novel by Charles Frazier, a white Southerner. It shows how Confederate death squads terrorized the civilian population, raining down extortion and murder in a search for “deserters” (any white man or boy who couldn’t afford to buy his way out of service). Once again, the message is clear: yes, white working people in the South have been persecuted — by white rich people in the South and the government they prop up.
I want to believe that my Confederate ancestors took up arms simply because they felt they were being invaded by a foreign power and needed to defend their homeland. The evil lies not so much with them as with the architects of the Confederacy — the guys who paid so their sons wouldn’t have to die alongside your ancestors.
The smartest of our white Southern forebears, like Confederate hero Gen. James Longstreet, surrendered with honor and supported black equality, the one way the South could atone for slavery and become a model of democracy that would outshine the hypocritical North. But then the bad old guys came back and destroyed Reconstruction, robbing black people of the freedom they had just gained and sharply curtailing the rights of the vast majority of white people, too.
When Louisiana’s Gov. Murphy Foster signed the state’s Jim Crow constitution in 1898, he disenfranchised 90 percent of Louisiana’s black population — and over 50 percent of our white ancestors, as well. As they saw their rights go away, they were fed claptrap about how superior they were to their black neighbors (though inferior to the white elites).
They say the battle ensign of the Army of Northern Virginia — which came to be known as the Confederate “battle flag”— is about “heritage, not hate.” Since “hate” is a loaded word, let’s go ahead and grant that it’s not about hate. But it has absolutely nothing to do with “heritage,” either. “Heritage” means a cultural tradition, as in the one evoked by the name of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Any flag associated with a political regime is a political symbol, not a cultural one. By invoking Southern “heritage” do you really mean to signal agreement with the politics of the short-lived and disastrously failed regime that authorized that flag? A regime that brought ruin to the South and was resisted, even at the time, by the smartest and bravest of our white Southern ancestors? If you truly love the South, you know that the blend of our African and European cultural backgrounds is the genius of our regional “heritage.”
You might be surprised to know that the first appearance of the star-spangled St. Andrew’s cross — the flag in Dylann’s selfies — had very little to do with its current meaning. This particular banner (unlike several more common ones) was adopted in the mid-20th century by the Dixiecrats, the segregationist faction that ran Strom Thurmond for president in 1948 and has since been folded into the Republican Party.
The flag and the impossible promise to keep our black neighbors out of our public schools was yet another cynical sop thrown to us by the same old handful of rich guys who have always run the South. Unfortunately, many of our ancestors — thankfully not my own parents — embarrassed themselves by once again turning on their working-class neighbors, the black ones. Once again, the white working class didn’t seem to realize that it was being used by the white upper crust, a group that made no use of public schools when it came to educating their own kids. In fact, this same unholy alliance proceeded to systematically defund and destroy the school system once it became majority black.
Now a bunch of South Carolina Republicans are congratulating themselves for recognizing that the symbol they’ve used for decades to trick you into voting against your interests is too besmirched to be useful any more. They deserve no accolades for finally taking down an emblem of their calculated bigotry, one that they themselves ran up the flagpole.
It’s a great window of opportunity for you to reflect on what they’ve done to you for the past century and a half. If you’re a working-class white Southerner who faces a daily struggle to make ends meet, you do have a right to be angry. But your black neighbors are not the cause of your problems. Nor are they a good focus for your rage.
You’re mad when you see successful TV careerists — white and black — lecturing you about “white privilege,” since you’re obviously a lot less privileged than they are. But you need to recognize that black people have been far more seriously persecuted than any class of white people in this country’s history. There’s no way around that reality, so the sooner you face it, the sooner you can locate your own place in the pyramid of the oppressed.
That black people have had it worse than you does not mean you haven’t also been screwed. You just haven’t yet identified the right culprits. It’s not that hard: they’re the ones with the most money. As soon as you realize the meaning of the term “race-baiting,” you will free your mind, and hopefully help get us on track to an improved region and nation. That worm on the hook isn’t even real, it never was. But the hook is.
C.W. Cannon teaches New Orleans Studies and English at Loyola University.