Trump’s Defense of Confederate Symbols and Its Threat to Color-Blind Liberalism

Roundup
tags: Confederate Monuments



Tim Messer-Kruse is a Professor of Ethnic Studies in the School of Critical and Cultural Studies at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

...Full-throated condemnation of white supremacists follows long-discredited psychopathology theories of bigotry: that racism is a psychological disorder, or a deviant personality trait, or a maladaptive learned behavior. From the 1920s well into the civil rights era many researchers applied a medical model to bigotry, viewing it like a disease and sought educational and therapeutic cures for it. While these theories were superseded in academic circles by Boasian anthropology, semiotics, and critical race studies, they lived on in popular culture because their continued vitality excused and rendered invisible the shared social basis of actual racism. Bigots serve the useful purpose of allowing the rest of us white people off the hook, giving us the ability to feel morally superior and apart from the problems labelled passively as “race relations.” ...

Many took special umbrage at Trump’s equation of Confederates and America’s founding heroes. Newsweek reporter Kurt Eichenwald responded, ““Trump equated a traitor to the Father of our Country.” Keith Olbermann wrote, “Trump just equated Robert E. Lee to George Washington. His moral authority to lead this country has ended.”  Michael Moore tweeted, “… He likened George Washington to Robert E. Lee. Donald. Trump. Fuck. You.”

Liberal historians objected to Trump’s “slippery slope” argument by differentiating between Confederate heroes and Founding Fathers, but with a logic that was shaky at best.  Harvard’s Annette Gordon-Reed made a fair start when she told the New York Times that Confederate generals should be viewed differently from Washington and Jefferson because their main purpose was to tearing down the American union, not building it up.  But when she waded into the problem of moral equivalency, she found herself in some deep quicksand:  “This is not about the personality of an individual and his or her flaws…This is about men who organized a system of government to maintain a system of slavery and to destroy the American union.”

Just as America needs bigots to excuse its lack of interest in taking any meaningful action to overcome the continuing racism that is woven into the warp and woof of society and its institutions, white Americans crave a nostalgic version of their own national history that views racism as an infection on the body politic. Racism cannot be seen as being endemic to the American system, for that would imply that to counter it requires continuing and vigorous anti-racist action. Rather, America’s founders are depicted as “tragically flawed” but great men who were entrapped in an institution of slavery that they struggled but failed to rid themselves of.  According to this comforting narrative, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and the other Founding Fathers may have “owned” slaves but envisioned ending slavery.  Confederates were rebels who wanted to sustain and grow slavery in opposition to the ennobled north, led by the Great Emancipator, Lincoln, who rose up on the side of freedom. The Civil War not only settled the question of the perpetual union of the states, it erased the treasonous stain of racism from American institutions, except for the southern bigots who took a century to accept this fact.

Equating Confederates with the problem of racism and Founders with a failed but noble color-blind progressivism, has long served to insulate American government and American society from the sort of deep and critical examination of racist practices that any true belief in equality would require. ...





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