America’s Deeper Issue: Why the South Still Struggles with Racism and Inequality

↑ The Last Civil War Veteran, 1961. Oil on canvas. Larry Rivers (1923—2002).
The Last Civil War Veteran, 1961. Oil on canvas. Larry Rivers (1923—2002).

Slavery didn’t derange Southerners, it perpetuated their worldview, and that worldview is still with us.

America’s original colonies were started by people with radically different ideologies. The colonies of the North were founded on principles we’ve come to identify as American. The South? Not so much.

The Virginia Company founded their colony as a place where the Norman aristocracy and oligarchy could replicate manor life in England, reigning over their plantations and slaves, not to mention the government and the courts. The model for this lifestyle was the way Normans subjugated Gaelic people, living life high on the hog in fortified estates in a land not their own.

The book American Nations has a great description of how these people defined liberty (hint: it’s not interchangeable with the word freedom).

They emulated the learned, slave-holding elite of ancient Athens, basing their enlightened political philosophies around the Latin concept of libertas, or liberty. This was a fundamentally different notion from the Germanic concept of Freiheit, or freedom, which informed the political thought of Yankeedom and the Midlands.

Understanding the difference between liberty as defined by the South then (and the Dixie bloc today) and freedom as defined by the North, Left Coast, and most of the Midwest is key to understanding the conflicts that continue to fester in our nation. Read on (emphasis ours):

For the North, Anglo-Saxons, Dutch, and other Germanic tribes of northern Europe, “freedom” was a birthright of free peoples, which they considered themselves to be. Individuals might have differences in status and wealth, but all were literally “born free.” All were equal before the law, and all had come into the world possessing “rights” that had to be mutually respected on threat of banishment. Tribes had the right to rule themselves through assemblies like Iceland’s Althingi, recognized as the world’s oldest parliament. Until the Norman invasion of 1066, the Anglo-Saxon tribes of England had ruled themselves in this manner. After the invasion, the lords of Normandy imposed manorial feudalism on England, but they never fully did away with the “free” institutions of the Anglo-Saxons and (Gaelo-Norse) Scots, which survived in village councils, English common law, and the House of Commons. It was this tradition that the Puritans carried to Yankeedom.

The Greek and Roman political philosophy embraced by Tidewater gentry assumed the opposite: most humans were born into bondage. Liberty was something that was granted and thus was a privilege, not a right. Some people were permitted many liberties, others had very few, and many had none at all. The Roman republic was one in which only a few had the full privileges of speech (senators, magistrates), a minority had the right to vote on what their superiors had decided (citizens), and most people had no say at all (slaves)… This was the political philosophy embraced and jealously guarded by Tidewater’s leaders, whose highborn families saw themselves as descendants not of the “common” Anglo-Saxon, but rather of their aristocratic Norman conquerors. It was a philosophical divide with racial overtones and one that would later drive America’s nations into all-out war with one another.

Slavery didn’t derange Southerners. Slavery was recruited to perpetuate their worldview, and that worldview is still with us.

In the Deep South, the worldview went far beyond the relatively genteel notions of aristocrats in Virginia. The rulers of the Deep South had something even more sinister in mind.

The Founding Fathers of the Deep South arrived by sea, their ships dropping anchor off what is now Charleston in 1670 and 1671. Unlike their counterparts in Tidewater, Yankeedom, New Netherland, and New France, they had not come directly from Europe. Rather, they were the sons and grandsons of the founders of an older English colony: Barbados, the richest and most horrifying society in the English-speaking world.

The society they founded in Charleston did not seek to replicate rural English manor life or to create a religious utopia in the American wilderness. Instead, it was a near-carbon copy of the West Indian slave state these Barbadians had left behind, a place notorious even then for its inhumanity. Enormously profitable to those who controlled it, this unadulterated slave society would spread rapidly across the lowlands of what is now South Carolina, overwhelming the utopian colony of Georgia and spawning the dominant culture of Mississippi (setting of Django Unchained), lowland Alabama, the Louisiana Delta country, eastern Texas and Arkansas, western Tennessee, north Florida, and the southeastern portion of North Carolina. From the outset, Deep Southern culture was based on radical disparities in wealth and power, with a tiny elite commanding total obedience and enforcing it with state-sponsored terror. Its expansionist ambitions would put it on a collision course with its Yankee rivals, triggering military, social, and political conflicts that continue to plague the United States to this day.

Let’s see…

  • Radical disparities of wealth and power.
  • A tiny elite commanding total obedience. Most people having no say at all.
  • Governments and courts owned and run by the aristocracy.
  • Any effort to discuss justice derided as envy.
  • Everyone talking about preserving liberty.

…it all sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it?

The Civil War was not enough. Reconstruction was not enough. Ending Jim Crow was not enough. Civil Rights was not enough. #BlackLivesMatter is not enough.

The sad truth is, many of the talking heads we see on TV (including Pat Robertson, who reminds viewers to save their Confederate dollars because “The South will rise again!”) can trace their worldview back to Barbadian slave traders. The genealogy isn’t the problem, the ideology is.

The deeper issue we have to face is the imperialist vision of the world: impoverished masses serving a tiny ruling elite in an inhuman slaveocracy masquerading as a righteous theocracy.

The change has been underway for over 200 years. Back in 1970, Left Coast resident Neil Young sang Southern change is gonna come at last. (“Sweet Home Alabama” didn’t qualify as a rebuttal, but 40 years of neoconservative backlash did.) The new Jim Crow shows how far we have to go—but remember, this too is a symptom of the deeper issue of worldview.

This is not a condemnation of every Southerner. Some of our best friends are Southerners. (Blue state darlings Al Gore, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter are Southerners.) Rather, this is a call for us to be completely clear about the historical roots of our longstanding conflict, and armed with that clarity endeavor to better perfect our union.

 

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