Your Confederacy Is Choking My People

By Allyn Brooks-LaSure.

As protestors spur a national racial awakening while chanting “I can’t breathe” in the streets, the country grapples with another force suffocating the life out of Black Americans: the confederacy and its white supremacist ideology. On the fifth anniversary of the Charleston shooting, reasonable Americans are questioning why our nation lionizes a traitorous military and culture that has exacted so high a toll on the United States of America. It is a valid question ushering in a moment pregnant with generational change. But this moment’s success is predicated on the answer to a question that every corporation, politician, and community reveling in, or silent about, confederate and white supremacist nostalgia must ask: After 155 years, can we finally cancel the confederacy and relieve Black Americans yearning to breathe free?

Some are taking action into their own hands, with waves of activists destroying and defacing confederate monuments. Following generations of political inaction, these activists are putting themselves in harm’s way to rid their communities of confederate blight. While courageous and symbolically significant, that will not be enough to rid our nation of the confederacy’s asphyxiating effects. Razing confederate edifices — no matter how spectacularly — never sufficiently destroys their racist lost cause or the political and homicidal scaffolding of white supremacy. Tearing down monuments is hollow sentimentality if the powerful fail to acknowledge why these marble statues were misplaced from the start.

For generations, we endured the convenient lie that confederate monuments commemorated fallen southern rebels — an absurdly inappropriate justification for erecting shrines to treason, to begin with. And this lie gave birth to a thriving culture brimming with reenactments, holidays, street names, buildings, festivals, schools, and theology. Even those with no credible claim to the confederacy donned confederate themed t-shirts, bumper stickers, and front yard flags — all while insisting that their affection for the confederacy was about “heritage not hate.” (A curious distinction considering the heritage of the confederacy was, and remains, hate.)

But this absurd cover story obscured the far more sinister reality that these monuments were not only tabernacles to Jim Crow segregation, but also overt mnemonic icons for continued racial apartheid. Statues to Robert E. Lee and other confederate rebels are less about military strategy and Southern gentility and are more about Southern terror, white supremacy, and racial domination. Communities erected these monuments to choke the political, economic, social, and physical life out of Black communities by reminding us who was on top and who was not.  As white Americans asserted their position as the upper caste, these commemorations littered our boulevards, public spaces, and their car bumpers. They made their point. And we couldn’t breathe.

We have known for generations that the confederacy cannot exist beside a confident, pluralistic United States. It couldn’t in 1861 and it cannot now. No historical or moral gymnastics can twist that reality. More pointedly, the confederacy cannot exist amid or around Black America at all. It couldn’t in 1861 and it cannot now. We have the receipts to prove it. And, as is typically the case, Black people seem to lose no matter whether the confederacy is waxing or waning. The wages of a retreating confederacy are black death, with sheepish confederate sympathizers furling their flags only after Black blood runs in the streets. Yet, the price of a thriving confederate culture claims even more Black life through subconscious terror, daily intimidation, and actual murder — spawning Dylann Roof and his ilk. Either way, we can’t win, and we still can’t breathe.

To that point, affection for confederate symbolism would seem comically harmless were it not for the economic and political wheezing provoked by 155 years of inhaling revisionist history and confederate retrenchment. The truth is that when Roof entered Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME Church five years ago, his homicidal impulse was 150 years of confederate propaganda and white supremacist theology made manifest. Telling us, once again, that the toll for abiding (or assaulting) the confederacy and white supremacy is an enduringly fatal one — paid for almost exclusively by Blacks in this country, as was exemplified during that tragic June evening bible study.  

The massive moral outrage following the Mother Emanuel attack caused the confederate jack to lose its position of honor on the South Carolina statehouse grounds. The confederacy’s detractors expanded their ranks beyond the usual people of color and liberal white allies, sparking a groundswell of anti-confederate sentiment. Dozens of political officials denounced the flag with moral clarity, thus leading any reasonable person to assume the rebels were finally on the run. At last, the nation reviewed its moral compass and determined America was way off-course. 

The tragedy is that Black sacrifice was required to spur even a modicum of political courage and an assessment of our nation’s moral health. Even then, the political rebuke of the confederate flag was only a pyrrhic victory which underscored a bitter, yet irrefutable, truth: the confederacy refuses to go down without a fight and only sounds retreat when Black people die. Worse still, the flag’s political ejection would prove to be a mere short-term suspension. Politicians reversed earlier principled stands against the flag with incoherent revisionism, thus nullifying the moral impact of their politically courageous actions. Politics ultimately trumped principle, and the confederacy was made great again. And still we can’t breathe.

Neutralizing the confederacy’s noxious fumes requires confronting the truth — an encounter that confederates and their sympathizers have long forestalled. When we accept the truth about the war, the confederacy, slavery, southern “redemption,” and the Jim Crow-era deification of confederate rebels, we can only reach the conclusion that every monument must go. The truth compels us to correct schoolbooks spinning morally bankrupt yarns about happy slaves and benevolent masters. The truth implores us to change the names of streets, buildings, schools, and mascots that romanticize an era that was never all that romantic — certainly not for Blacks in this country. The truth demands that we ban the icons of racism from everywhere except museum cases and documentary reels. The truth demands that we cancel the confederacy once and for all.

There is some movement. The Marine Corps, the Navy, and now NASCAR are finally doing what every American institution should have done 155 years ago. While their newsworthy steps merit tepid praise, these actions were appallingly late and fatally costly. NASCAR’s announcement followed national unrest, actual dead Black bodies in the streets, and a racial reckoning on a scale unseen in decades. Up until now, Black Americans were content with whatever progress we could get. We accepted the gesture, no matter how small, disingenuous, or temporary. But this time is different.

This moment presents a ripe opportunity to strike a lasting blow at the heart of the confederacy — which will better position us to assault the very real economic, social, and political remnants of white supremacy. But everyone has a part to play in cancelling the confederacy. Protestors cannot carry this alone — nor should they be expected to. Those with platforms of influence in commerce, politics, and entertainment are called to speak clearly and resoundingly against the confederacy. Play your part. Black people are in the streets. And while we can’t breathe, we can certainly see and hear. Meaning, to those who refuse to speak out against the confederacy and white supremacy, Black Americans know whose hands are really around our necks.

Allyn Brooks-LaSure works in the communications department at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.