June 24, 2015

"White trash," the #ConfederateFlag, and Southern culture and Southern heritage

A 10-15 second snippet from a segment on NPR's Morning Edition today, about the Confederate flag and Charleston, is the starting point here.

Actually, connotatively, it kind of is the CSA flag.
Officially, it became the canton of the actual CSA flag
that replaced the Stars and Bars in 1863, so, IMO,
this meme attempt isn't totally right either.
Connotatively again, it then became seen as "the flag"
of the Confederacy because of the racists behind the
rise of the Second Klan in the 1920s.
Plus, again connotatively, this meme attempt is itself
often used as an attempt to stifle larger questions
about "Southern culture," etc. with an "ignoramus" label.
A white kid, a college student at Catawba College says (not quite direct quote, but pretty close), says, about the Rebel (battle) flag: "No, it's not a symbol of racism for me, but the white trash made it that." (The "white trash" is actual words.)

The multiple layers of smug. The multiple layers of stratification in his comment.

And, as part of that, not a denial that he might be racist; just an attempt to put the flag of rebellion in a circumscribed box and attach it to other people.

Don’t be surprised to see if this gains traction in days ahead.

Don't be surprised if the South Carolina Legislature spins and frames its actions similarly, as part of what I already see as head fakefirst, in-depth action a distant second. Definitely don’t be surprised if that’s the next way Dylann Roof’s actions get spun by some, if the “attack on Christianity” and “mentally ill” angles don’t take hold.

That said, any “organized” attempt to go this route would definitely be playing with fire, wouldn’t it? Many tea party types, whether they are or are not what Southern “betters” would call “white trash,” probably identify in some way as such. After all, that’s part of how the Confederate flag spread beyond the old South in the 1950s.

As for the college student? There’s a grain of truth to his saying, that goes back before the Civil War. It certainly covers the likes of President Andrew Johnson, with his mix of a high degree of racism plus a hatred of “betters” that led to the disasters of Reconstruction. (Johnson made rich planters and Confederate officers grovel to him for pardons. Once the groveling satisfied his ego, he granted just about every pardon request he got while remaining as racist as ever.)

And, it seems to have been some part of Southern societal structure in general, with the “betters” letting everyday white people deal with more of the small, everyday confrontations with Southern blacks and the friction related to that. In return, it offered these everyday white people someone to kick whenever they felt down — and kick they often did, sometimes fatally during the peak of the civil rights movement.

(None of this is to say that all Southern whites of today participate in such cultural stratification, or course. Nor is it to say that there is no such stratification outside of the South.)

The “betters” got the smug satisfaction of remaining above the fray, of kicking poor whites, and of keeping Southern culture stratified.

Sociologists and economists want to blame a number of factors for the South’s poor post-Reconstruction economic development, which basically carried on its relatively poor pre-Reconstruction economic development. Unfortunately, I don’t think they look enough to this continuing social stratification.

I actually read a book on this issue, several years ago. It was not just about Southern cultural stratification, but it was about how, in general, especially in similar systems with definite stratification, groups low on the totem pole can be "encouraged" to kick groups even further down, as an attempt to reduce anxiety and anger, even though the result may often be to increase anxiety, unwarranted anger and other psychological issues.

And, it is continuing. Note how casually the college kid spoke about “white trash.” Note that that too is part of "Southern culture" and "Southern heritage" that the Rebel flag supposedly is so much about.

Finally, he didn't get that "white trash" idea from nowhere. Behind Mr. Catawba College are parents and a peer group with the same mindset, most likely. And, for illustrative juxtaposition, Catawba is a private, and religious, college. No, not Baptist — it's "loosely affiliated" with the United Church of Christ, theologically liberal enough to be quasi-Unitarian.

But, the NCAA has already given it a noogie for use of the generic "Indians" mascot.

It is theoretically the type of place that would attract Southern Protestant "betters" too freethinking to go to an Episcopalian or liberal Methodist school.

Final note, especially for my humanist friends: Here is a good guide on how to talk about racial issues.

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