Should We Provoke White Supremacists?

By | May 27, 2017

Recently I responded (several times!) to comments about the fine, fine speech given by Mayor Landrieu at the removal of four monuments/statues which had been raised originally to support and defend the white supremacists’ governance of the South, first in the American Civil War and then in the overthrow and coup 10 or so years later in the city of New Orleans.

Several people replied to my comments, attempting to shift the argument to other details—tariffs, states’ rights, Southern hospitality, Northern sins, and so on.

One reply went longer than the rest, and I responded to it detail by detail, as best I could. I think there are useful things here in my response, so I’m pulling it out here to post it as a separate topic.

First, the original reply from Roy Gathercoat is here.

Then, here is my set of responses. Roy’s statements are in blockquotes, and my answers follow.


I agree with most of what you have written here, Stephen, but don’t be baited to move your position too far. If you say that slavery was an integral part of the causes of the Civil War, and that slavery was (is) dehumanizing, and even that to justify slavery, many wealthy white folks resorted to white supremacy/black inferiority positions; I am with you.

If, however, you are saying any of these I disagree:

(1) Slavery in and of itself was the primary cause of the Civil War

I disagree.  Black chattel slavery was the primary cause of the American Civil War (ACW), in this fact: there would be no southern rebellion without slaver states attempting for decades prior to the ACW to enforce the acceptance of slavery upon all America.  Slaver states began their formal secession even prior to Lincoln’s inauguration. The Union returned fire from Fort Sumter by going all-in to re-capture the treasonous states. There would be no ACW had slavery not been the underlying principle of the Southern economy. Did the North declare that the extirpation of black chattel slavery was the primary reason for the battle, at any time? Not to my knowledge. I think that even at the end, it was “Union Forever, Hurrah boys, hurrah! Down with the traitors, up with the stars!” – and note the plural form: it was to re-assert the principle of federalism and unionism. When the traitorous state governments were overthrown and the new Unionist governments were installed, the rebellious states were rejoined to the Union.

slavery as philosophical principle without regard for its economic benefits and preservation of the (unjust) structural inequities supporting the White plantation way of life

Not sure what you are arguing here. That the South was uniquely founded on the principle of white supremacy and the eternal bondage of innocent black Africans to work and labor and die for the profit of white slavers and the society that benefited from black chattel slavery? Well, yes, I agree. I don’t use “plantation,” however. I use “forced labor camp and prison,” because I won’t whitewash what happened.

(2) The main reason the Southern states seceded was because they hated people of color and wanted to punish them, and the Northern states would not allow this;

If I have ever said this, I was wrong. If I have ever implied this, I was unclear.

It is utterly irrelevant whether Southern states (and I think you mean, the white people of the Southern states) “hated” people of color or wanted to punish them. There are plenty of mixed race babies from the 400 years of white supremacy. Many famous people, including Thomas Jefferson, loved their slaves and had multiple children by them. Children they put right into slavery, of course. “Love” and “hate” are not useful here. Actions are.

I don’t think the Northern states would not “allow” the South to be hateful towards black Africans. The primary focus of the political and economic North was to keep the Union. The moralistic underpinnings of the ACW according to the North only slowly became tied to abolitionism, even though there was a tiny minority declaring the immorality of black chattel slavery. John Brown and Nat Turner didn’t start the war with their moralistic cries about the wickedness of black chattel slavery and a white slaver society. South Carolina did that by trying to break up the Union.

(3) The Civil War was simple in its development and the conflicts between the North and South began with, and consisted mainly about, slavery;

Your word “simple” is doing a lot of work here. Social structures are complex because people are complex. Many things tie people together in communities and governments and states and nations. There were conflicts between various factions, North and South, Slaver and Free. Heck, people are complex: Jefferson and Madison and Washington could make various grand statements about human freedom and dignity and simultaneously own slaves. Occasionally they might write something like “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever,” and be in the position of raping their black property, as did Jefferson.

But absent white supremacy, a white slaver society and economy, and the very real fact of black chattel slavery, there would never be an American Civil War. There would have been no passionate defense of secondary issues. “Tariffs” and “states’ rights” would have simply been arguments that would lead to negotiations and perhaps even some resolutions.

The underlying principle of two systems under one house fighting against each other for their essentialism was the cause, and when the South, by reason of South Carolina’s foolish bombardment of Fort Sumter, threw its lot in with the rebels, the two-system government was replaced by a one-system government, as the underlying principle for the two-system government was black chattel slavery and white slavers as opposed to a government of relatively free people with somewhat more equal status, including free black Americans.

(4) People in the North were less biased or hateful towards people of color than were people in the South;

Again, I am not arguing this. There were many race riots in the North. In 1741 New York City burned black Americans alive and hung others because of the rumors of a black American rebellion against white supremacy in the North. There is no implication that the North was “good” and the South was “bad.”

There is the direct statement that a government that attempts to enforce and elevate white slavers and white supremacy, however, is wicked. Always.

The North was not then, and is not now, simon-pure in its motivations and actions. The American colonies used black chattel slaves stolen from Africa for their profit and expansion, right from the very beginning.

The North, however, was simply freer to abandon its reliance upon legal slavery. Not free of all evil.

(5) The North’s political will was firmly anti-slave, while the South’s political will was uniformly pro-slave;

No one I know, and not I, argues that the North was pure in one direction and the South pure in another. There were many loyalists and Unionists in the South who were not consulted regarding the rebellion, and who were later hounded, attacked, and killed for their support of Unionism and even freedom for black human beings. (There was a colony of German Americans in Texas, for example, that was attacked and some killed because they attempted to resist the slaver rebellion. And of course the testimony of four million black Africans in chains was not considered when secession was debated. They were the governed yet had no voice in their government. When was their consent asked for in order to legitimize the slaver rebellion and slaver government?)

The argument isn’t that the North was pure in its motives. The argument is that the North was Unionist and gradually incorporated the extirpation of black chattel slavery. (The three Civil War Amendments were passed largely by the North which required their state legislatures to approve the amendments, leading to my belief that the North at least acknowledged that black chattel slavery and black disenfranchisement was wrong, even though they were still sympathetic to white supremacy.)

(6) Fighting for, or supporting the Southern states during the attempted secession makes you more of a bigot than fighting for the Northers states;

This isn’t a useful argument. The claim is that fighting for the Southern rebellion means fighting to support the Southern rebellion, a rebellion based upon white supremacy, white slavers running the political and economic (and even spiritual) systems), and the eternal enslavement of black Africans here in America since the very beginnings of the American colonies. There might be people with high-minded principles, but those principles were not the reasons for the rebellion, and those high-minded principles were not embodied in the governments and the Constitution and secession documents of the Southern states. Slavery was the underlying principle.

(7) Being a leader in the South means you were an unprincipled man (gender bias intentional);

“Unprincipled” implies “not acting according to your principles,” no? They were not doing that. They were, in my opinion, showing their true principles. In my own church (Southern Presbyterian), grown-ass men with degrees in theology and influential pulpits and podiums used my Jesus Christ to defend not just black chattel slavery, but also the extension of black chattel slavery into free states, because they though Jesus and God would be honored by that slavery. (Hit me up if you’d like an example of Presbyterian thought on the matter. I keep records.)

Unprincipled? No, not at all.

Just hiding their principles behind a thin veneer of smooth words and polite actions. They wanted the gloss of civilization to cover their very real white supremacist viewpoint and white slaver economy AND white slaver religious underpinnings.

(8) Lincoln’s primary purpose in sending federal troops to fight against the secession was to emancipate slaves, so that if it weren’t for slavery he would have allowed the Southern states to secede, but they would have no motivation to do so;

Lincoln never, to my knowledge, stated such a thing, and I do not know of any careful scholar who asserts that as a motive. Lincoln’s primary purpose was to enforce the federal Constitution against the treasonous state governments. (His job was, after all, to guarantee a “republican form of government” according to the Constitution, and of course means a republican government under the aegis of the Constitution, and not a rebellious and treasonous government under a break-away state.) As he stated at least once, if he could restore the Union by supporting slavery, he would have done it; it was his growing awareness that Union could not be a Union with white slavers and white slaver labor camps that led him to also work towards the freedom of owned human beings.

(9) Fighting for the South meant you were a traitor because your oaths to your State were generally seen as less important than your oaths to the Federal government, North or South;

Fighting for the Southern rebels against the lawful authority of the federal Constitution was treason, yes, especially to military men who received their federal commissions by swearing to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.

Their estimations of their oaths and their commitment to the federal Constitution were flawed, and I can’t honor them in their imprecise understanding. They fought to start and maintain a war that ended up killing 500,000 men in battle and countless civilians, fought to keep their black human brothers and sisters in chains, fought to protect a Confederate government whose Constitution forbade freedom for any black chattel slaves.

That is what they swore to when they swore to break their oaths to the federal Constitution and took up arms against the United States.

I’ll leave it to mind-readers to determine what they were thinking. I look at their actions and read their words.

(10) All the Northern presidents before and after Lincoln were abolitionists, while all the Southern presidents supported slavery;

I’m not sure if you mean “federal presidents from Northern states as compared to federal presidents from Southern states,” because Jeff Davis was the only president of the CSA that I know of.

That our antebellum Presidents included slavers is not arguable. The first six were, and several others after them. Many people in federal power from the founding of the United States, from 1789 through 1865, were white slavers, North and South. Heck, the nickname of the first President was “Slave-Catcher Washington,” because while President he pursued his escaped slaves.

Absent the fact that white slavers were included as our national leaders, including Presidents, I’m not sure what the point of this argument is.

The Civil [W]ar was complex. Its roots lie in the Revolutionary War, and were continued in the War of 1812.

This is interesting, but the point is what, exactly?

Slavery would not have continued in the South for certainly 50 years, and perhaps even for 20 if these other factors had not been present.

Flat-out false as an assertion, and unknowable. This is pretense. The white slavers of the South were looking to extend black chattel slavery across the Southwest and into Mexico, Caribbean states, Central America, and even South America.

Black chattel slavery was profitable. Period. Those who profited from that enslavement sought to increase their profit. It was not going to die out on its own, any more than a plague will die out on its own. A plague dies out when the infected people die. A system of profitable black chattel slavery dies out when the white slavers no longer can profit OR literally die out. And there is no sign that a profitable business was going to die out in the New World. Other nations kept black chattel slavery going for decades longer, and absent the rebellions of Haiti and the United States, there isn’t much reason to believe that shame, moral principle, or economic forces would cause black chattel slavery to die out.

One big difference between the Northern orators and the Southern is their location on the Federalism/Nationalism spectrum.

Not sure what this means.

Buchanan was a Northern President who supported slavery, tried to please everyone, and probably was one of the biggest reasons the country was on the brink of war even before Lincoln was elected.

It’s irrelevant whether Buchanan was supporting slavery if the white slavers of the South were actual slave-owners who wanted rebellion. Buchanan is as much the “cause” of the rebellion as is a feisty woman the “cause” of her beatings by her husband. The biggest reason for the rebellion of the Southern states was the actions of the Southern states.

None of this excuses slavery,

Correct. Nothing excuses slavery.

nor does it suggest in any way that we should minimize the harm and injustice done to people of color in all of North America and Western Europe.

WTF bringing in Western Europe? Do you know that in Western Europe there were freed black men and women as part of the social and economic structure? This is just bizarre.

The powerful enslaved the less powerful.

This is a truism. I’m not even sure why you bring it up. OF COURSE the powerful can enslave the powerless. They have the power to do so. The power they have is direct, given that they have tools and guns and economics, BUT they also have that power because their society willingly allows it as a necessary and even moral thing. We don’t think that robbing banks is a moral good, so we generally frown upon bank robbers and allow them to be imprisoned. We are less certain that environmental protection is a moral good, so we are less willing to see environmental destroyers be free to wreak havoc upon our environment, and are less willing to see them fined or even imprisoned for the far greater damage they cause than bank robbers who escape with a few thousand dollars in marked bills.

White slavers and the system of Southern slave-labor camps would not exist without the principle of white supremacy as the raison d’être of the South, even though white supremacy was also firmly a principle of the North. The North simple did not have as many enslaved people, did not have as many slave-labor camps, did not have as many leaders arguing vociferously for the principle of black enslavement and white profit. The enslavement of black Africans in the South meant that several Southern states were majority black humans, yet these black humans had no political power. White supremacy ensured that the minority whites were in charge, always.

The problem with the statues and the continuation of the pro-Civil [W]ar Southern rhetoric is not that these individuals were any better or worse than any particular leader from the North, but rather that they serve as a continuing painful reminder of the past injustices to many people of color (and others), and can contribute to inhibiting our efforts to come to grips with real problems of race relationships and systemic wealth disparity within our Republic today.

I’m not sure what you mean here, and I mean this honestly. A failed rebellion that is misremembered with fake history serves no one well, and I agree with you if that is what you mean. “A painful reminder” that cannot be discussed honestly, however, is a scab that continues to be ripped off before the healing can take place.

We need honest, frank, even brutal discussions about our past, not to blame the present and induce guild and shame, but in order to let go of the hold the imagined past has on so many people who think that their essential personhood is identified with that imagined past.

It’s sick and wrong for anyone to defend the South and Southern white supremacy and Southern white slavers and slave-labor camps. There is no defense.

We can look at things that come from the idea of the South, such as graciousness and hospitality and friendliness. There is a charm about Southern social structures that can, in their best examples, serve to remind us that people are more important than profits, that sincerity is more important than success, that accommodation can lead to great comfort.

I just cannot accept, however, that we have to lie about our past in order to placate people who will not give up their lies about the past.

These are grown adults we are talking about. We do not serve them well by enabling their pretenses.

By continuing to argue about slavery, we risk both hardening Southern hearts against their neighbors today and of hiding what are our real and present problems tearing our nation apart right now.

This is precisely what is wrong here. We are abandoning the field of battle because we would rather protect the feelings of our opponents than protect the human dignity and human worth of those we support. I do not care, one whit, for the “hearts” of people who work to oppose and harm my friends and family and neighbors and co-workers if they are black or gay or Muslim or female or transgender or Latino or disabled or old or sick or poor.

I am more than willing to reject their arguments, confound their plans, and disrupt their efforts. If they wish to hold on to a failed rebellion and a false history, I will make no effort to accommodate their warped perspectives or comfort them when they are aggrieved at rejection and refutation.

The largest injustice to people of color is not primarily that of slavery–it is the huge injustice still present today.

This is both a-historical and perverted.

A-historical in that the largest injustices (plural) to our fellow humans who are “people of color” stems because of our long, long history of white supremacy coupled with our refusal to examine our history and present which is based upon white supremacy. Attempting to excuse the past and start de novo is convenient to us who are white Christian Americans, but it is a lie. We are who we are and we are where we are because of the many, many decades of breaking the bodies and stealing the labor of our fellow humans whom we dehumanize and subjugate as “worthy of slavery” or “worthy of neglect.”

South Africa, in my opinion, has a similarly troubled and turbulent past, with many examples of wickedness and harm. And they have attempted to heal that by their Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It has not led to a perfect re-balancing of South African lives and justice. In some cases, in order to reach some conclusions they had to let known criminals off because those criminals were able to reveal the wicked actions of others.

But it is a declaration by South Africa that they are willing to dive into their past and open up all their history for display, as much as possible.

We should do the same thing here. It will be hard. Very hard. I would hazard most white Americans could not handle what we will need to do.

But we must decide what we need to do before we decide that we will do it. Until we are willing to do all the hard things, we will continually excuse, in my opinion, the very wicked past of America and the very wicked actions of the present that occur from the past because we do not want to do the very difficult work of being honest.

It is perverted that we must attempt to assuage the feelings of the inheritors of white supremacy’s accomplishments. We do not shut down the victims of robbery because we want to respect the tender hearts of the thief. We do not shut down the victims of a church bombing because it will result in fewer opportunities for laundromats to get sheets their very whitest.

We should not shut down the very real, very necessary discussions we must have about American racism and white supremacy, exemplified by the white slaver society of the Confederacy but not limited to that.

There is literally no reason to do so, and there is the very real danger we will continue to live in a nation that must cosset its lies while rejecting its truth.

The Romans said it earlier: “Fiat justitia ruat cælum” – “Let justice be done though the heavens fall.” Or, we must do what is right even though it bring down all that we hold dear.

If the cost of telling the truth is that we will have bad feelings or even resistance—then let’s just admit that truth is not our highest value.

  • Paul Littlefield

    I came here because of your comments on Mayor Landrieu’s speech. Thank you for standing up to the bullying you received there. You managed to be unyielding without being strident. After years as a coward, I am trying to stand up and be counted. Thank you for providing a useful example of how to do that.

    • Thank you for your very kind words!

      I would have to say, though, I wasn’t really bullied in that I didn’t feel bullied.

      I was more amused than anything else, and sad that grown men and women find value in a slave-owning society.

      I think we can look at our past and see all the good and all the bad.

      But American black chattel slavery is sui generis so evil and wicked that there is nothing redeemable in its existence, and nothing of honor to remember the white slavers for.

      I have taken a long time to get to this place, largely because good people were willing to instruct me and correct me.

      I don’t think racists are going to go away or even disappear, even with all the resources we might spend on education and energy on confrontation.

      I do believe, though, that there are many people who are persuadable, who look for strong, confident, happy voices to help them remember that they are good, decent people, and to turn away from the strident calls to hate and fear and exclude.

      I’m doing what I can to be that Happy Warrior, to quote Hubert Humphrey, the vastly underrated, good, kind man who spoke so fearlessly and confidently before the 1948 Democratic National Convention,