From the white supremacist “rally” and terror attack in Charlottesville, Va., to the current president’s public defense of Nazis to the recent uproar over HBO’s controversial decision to green-light a new series portraying a Confederate victory, it is clear that our nation is in the midst of a very public—and painful—reckoning with the memory (and ongoing realities) of white supremacy.
As Confederate monuments are increasingly being protested and toppled, many observers have drawn parallels to the memorialization of the Holocaust in Germany. Writing about the legacy of the Confederacy in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates observes:
Nazi Germany was also defeated. But while its surviving leadership was put on trial before the world, not one author of the Confederacy was convicted of treason. Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop was hanged at Nuremberg. Confederate General John B. Gordon became a senator. Germany has spent the decades since World War II in national penance for Nazi crimes. America spent the decades after the Civil War transforming Confederate crimes into virtues. It is illegal to fly the Nazi flag in Germany. The Confederate flag is enmeshed in the state flag of Mississippi.
While such comparisons to Germany are illustrative and understandable, they risk concealing as much as they reveal. As a scholar of collective memory and white supremacy, I would like to highlight a significant difference between Germany and the United States. While there are no state-sanctioned memorials to Hitler in Germany, there was a Germany before Hitler. There was no United States before white supremacy. And while the Nazis were defeated and the horrors of the Holocaust came to an end, the genocide of indigenous people by the U.S. government is ongoing, and slavery is still legal within our penal system.
From the inception of this nation, white supremacist ideology was used to justify genocide and slavery. And so, the problem of collective memory extends far beyond Confederate memorials. Removing memorials to white supremacy in the United States is not simply a matter of knocking down statues of Robert E. Lee. It’s relatively easy for some to see the Confederate flag as an emblem of hatred and white supremacy. But slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, mass incarceration and centuries of systematic racism all happened under the star-spangled banner.
In other words: It is not enough to recognize white supremacy in its most obvious manifestations (the overtly white supremacist Confederate). We also need to see it in the founding principles (and ongoing practices) of the nation itself.
The simple story of a “good,” anti-racist, slavery-abolishing Union and a “bad,” racist Confederate is liberal propaganda. It was never true. The nation those racist Confederates were attacking was also racist. The Union was racist. Slavery and white supremacist racism pervaded Northern states, and many abolitionists were white supremacists.
This widespread proliferation of racist ideas is brilliantly chronicled in Ibram X. Kendi’s award-winning book, Stamped From the Beginning. Students of racial history know that the Civil War was not a battle between a white supremacist faction and a moral, egalitarian Union. Rather, the Civil War was a battle between two warring, white supremacist factions. And, quiet as it’s kept, white supremacy won.
So while the removal of Confederate symbols of white supremacy is completely justifiable and repulsively long overdue, it is also important to recognize the fact that the flag of the Union—and, indeed, our current, actual flag—is an emblem of white supremacist racism, too. The nation that existed prior to the Civil War was racist. That country is still racist today. It has never not been racist.
You want to know why the United States still has memorials to white supremacy while Germany does not? White supremacy was our founding principle. Yes, of course, Germany was racist before Hitler, and anti-Semitism predated the Holocaust. But unlike the United States, Germany was not explicitly founded on white supremacy or racialized violence. Indeed, German Nazis actually modeled their death-making logics and practices on the implementation of white supremacy in the United States.
A clear-eyed understanding of our nation’s systematic relationship to white supremacy reveals that the United States has consistently treated white supremacist terrorists with more sympathy and respect than civil rights activists. This is why, beyond Confederate statues, we still have hundreds of monuments, buildings and prestigious schools (Yale, to name just one) honoring people (mostly wealthy, white men) who made their fortune enslaving, exploiting, torturing and raping racialized minorities.
White supremacy here can’t be reduced to a persona (Hitler), or even to Nazis. It is (and always has been) present within the entire political apparatus. White supremacy infuses every aspect of our society: It is displayed on the star-spangled banner, on our money, in our (neo)liberal ideology and hypercapitalism. It’s in the infiltration of white supremacists into every sphere of power (economics, politics, the military, the police, academia).
White supremacy in the United States cannot be toppled by toppling statues. It’s endemic. Importantly, the endemic nature of white supremacy was repeatedly denied by former President Barack Obama. Obama built his political career (before, during and, now, after his presidency) granting some acknowledgment of racism but insisting that white supremacy was not a fundamental feature of our country. Which is to say, he perpetuated a lie.
As a system, white supremacy needs people to believe that it 1) doesn’t exist, 2) has been overcome or 3) exists only among extremists. White supremacy can’t tolerate millions of people finally realizing that it is pervasive and systematic. It needs us ignorant and “hopeful.” And it needs us to cling to a particular kind of hope—a hope that reinforces racial ignorance and denial of white supremacy. A hope that sells you neoliberal inclusion and “feel good” tokenism—the kind of hope that cannot threaten the racial status quo.
If you truly want to envision a world without white supremacy, you will need to utterly destroy the delusion that it is somehow trapped inside Confederate monuments. You will have to see, maybe for the first time, that white supremacy is as entangled in the star-spangled banner as it is in Confederate flags. And you will have to let go of any ideology that would have you see white supremacy in your political enemies but not your charismatic, political faves.
Our selective outrage and inability to see the systematic reach of white supremacy on the left and the right distracts attention from the continued concentration of wealth in the hands of white male property owners. So yes, remove these morally repugnant Confederate monuments and the most overt memorials to white supremacy. But remember that there’s an entire system that needs reckoning. The effectiveness of our anti-racism depends on our ability to see and name these problems clearly. In other words: Don’t miss the white supremacist forest for the Confederate trees.