“Who is the Ultimate Traitor? On Patriotism and White Supremacy”
by Crystal M. Fleming, Ph.D.
“It is crucially important that the removal of Confederate statues not provide yet another propaganda opportunity for neoliberals to suggest that the “real” United States is somehow not racist.”
Among centrist Democrats and even some progressives, the argument is frequently being made that confederate statues should be condemned because confederates were "traitors". While this might seem like a compelling argument, it very quickly becomes troublesome for the anti-racist. It is evident that throughout history, people who opposed racism (from anti-slavery agitators to the Black Panthers to the relatively moderate Martin Luther King Jr.) have been framed as traitorous, unpatriotic and even treated like domestic terrorists by the government of the United States. It is widely known that the director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, directly referred to Martin Luther King as an “enemy of the state” and, under Obama’s presidency, the same FBI targeted peaceful activists associated with the Movement for Black Lives—and refused to label white supremacist terrorist Dylann Roof a white supremacist terrorist. It should be noted that Barack Obama—the same man who insisted, against all empirical evidence, that racism is not “endemic” to the United States—also declined to acknowledge the fact that Roof was, indeed, a domestic terrorist.
“Northern states were bastions of slavery, white supremacist violence and widespread racism.”
While confederate monuments should be removed, those committed to the universal cause of human rights should be wary of reflexively framing confederates as the “ultimate traitors.” Doing so implicitly suggests that the Union Army itself represented ultimate moral goodness. But this liberal myth can only be sustained by conveniently forgetting that Northern states were bastions of slavery, white supremacist violence and widespread racism. During the Civil War, black soldiers who fought for the Union were subject to systematic racism. White supremacist racism and anti-blackness were common among abolitionists, including Lincoln himself. Even the U.S. government itself admits that “racial discrimination was prevalent even in the North, and discriminatory practices permeated the U.S. military.” Most crucially, perhaps, is the fact that after the war, newly freed slaves were ultimately abandoned and betrayed by the federal government as the reconciled white majority found common cause in uniting against minorities and enforcing a violent system of white supremacist rule in which “racial terror lynchings” were frequent occurrences. Much of this history—deliberately obscured and largely forgotten, was chronicled by W.E.B. Du Bois in his seminal (and still relevant) work Black Reconstruction.
“Those committed to the universal cause of human rights should be wary of reflexively framing confederates as the ‘ultimate traitors.’”
It should go without saying that when a nation is founded on genocide, slavery, patriarchy, class oppression and white supremacy, patriotism cannot be the ultimate test of morality. But the sad reality is that even in 2017, such a thing must be stated plainly. This is the case because rather than focusing on what has not changed since the inception of the United States—the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of white men—we have been conditioned to celebrate “racial progress,” deny ongoing racial oppression and rationalize historical atrocities. We are surrounded by self-flattering disinformation that portrays the United States (and the Union) as non-racist, moral entities. But it is important to recognize that our nation has never been morally decent in terms of its values, institutional practices and ongoing practice of white supremacy. Using patriotism as a moral test always fails the logical test -- that is, if you actually believe that indigenous, black and brown lives matter. The only way that a society such as ours can be framed as a moral entity is to devalue the lives that are routinely devalued by its dominant practices, and to elevate the worthiness of lives that are enriched by its systems of domination.
The fact that there are any monuments at all remaining to the overtly racist Confederacy in 2017 should tell you all you need to know about the hegemony of white supremacy in the United States. In this nation, denying, justifying, ignoring and minimizing racism are all national rites of passage. So, too, is the habitual, intergenerational tradition of praising and honoring enslavers, racists and rapists. It is crucially important that the removal of Confederate statues not provide yet another propaganda opportunity for neoliberals to suggest that the “real” United States is somehow not racist. We have an opportunity now—in the midst of the current commemorative crisis—to name and condemn systematic white supremacy clearly.
“Using patriotism as a moral test always fails the logical test -- that is, if you actually believe that indigenous, black and brown lives matter.”
The removal of confederate monuments should not be legitimized on the flimsy basis of patriotic moralizing, but rather on the basis of basic human decency—a quality that does not co-exist with racism.
If there are “ultimate traitors,” they are those who embraced racist, hypercapitalist, patriarchal and other forms of dominator logic and, in so doing, justified their personal enrichment as they, daily, benefitted from genocide, chattel slavery, sexism and class oppression. If we were to use these criteria to identify "ultimate traitors" – traitors to morality, human rights and basic decency – the list would include tens of millions of ordinary people as well as the so-called founding fathers who founded a social and racial order on white supremacy and interrelated forms of oppression. It would also include tens of millions of our fellow citizens who continue to tolerate or outright support a white supremacist president who continues to show outright support for other white supremacists.
Those who want to build a more inclusive and just society should have a higher moral bar than one provided by a nation that has normalized state violence and white male domination for centuries.
I would hope that at some point, people of conscience realize that we do not need to morally elevate or honor white supremacists -- even those who also putatively embraced ideas of "freedom." The freedom they had in mind was not honorable: it was a freedom conceived specifically by and for white male property owners. We, as a people (and a species) can and must do better.
Crystal Marie Fleming, Ph.D., is associate professor of sociology and Africana studies at Stony Brook University. Her recent book, Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France, examines collective memory and racial politics. She is currently finishing a book entitled How to Be Less Stupid About Race. Her public writing on race appears prominently on Twitter.