This last weekend I was in Kansas City at the White Privilege Conference. I spent the weekend building relationships and sharpening the tools necessary for combating white supremacy. Much of the work involves confronting the ignorance we white folks possess when it comes to the manifestations and impact of race, racism, whiteness, and white supremacy. And it didn’t take long to come face to face with precisely why that work is so crucial. The picture above was the car parked in front of us as we pulled away from the hotel hosting the conference. Then, on Monday, our President pondered why the Civil War even happened and claimed Andrew Jackson would have prevented it had he been President at the time. This is whiteness in 2017, in Donald Trump’s America.
Whitewashing the Civil War
There is no greater stage for the ignorance and insidiousness of whiteness than the Civil War. From “reenactors” who claim to only be keeping “history alive” to Donald Trump’s blatant endorsement of white supremacy, genocide and chattel slavery (Andrew Jackson was a slaveholder and invaded Native territory illegally) whiteness creates an ignorance that is dangerous and must be confronted.
The Civil War began because of slavery. Full Stop.
For those among us who claim it was fought over state’s rights: The rights the southern states wanted to maintain was the right to own slaves. They were worried that Abraham Lincoln was going to abolish the institution so beginning with South Carolina they seceded from the Nation. The fact that Lincoln wasn’t going to abolish slavery, or that the North’s main concern was simply maintaining the Union and the economic opportunity provided by the southern states, doesn’t change that the Civil War began because the South feared abolition. No, it wasn’t a war fought over the morality of slavery, sadly. Still, removing slavery from the equation is a lie that keeps whiteness palatable for many. To reenact this conflict with pride, or to claim the Confederate flag does not represent this history perpetuates the worldview of whiteness and helps to prop up white supremacy.
This worldview was on full display during Trump’s interview with Sirius radio where he opinioned that had Andrew Jackson been president when the war occurred it could have been avoided. He wondered, outloud, why the Civil War couldn’t have been “worked out.”
Never mind that Andrew Jackson was President nearly two decades before the Civil War, let’s place him in the White House at the time and use that to understand the mind of Donald Trump.
“Working it Out”
Let’s start with the obvious: treating human beings like property is not something you “work out.” There is – and always has been—only one acceptable response to the institution of slavery: complete abhorrence. Working it out is what you do when you can’t agree on what movie to go see, or who’s going to do the dishes, you don’t “work out” slavery.
Beyond the moral void of the frame, it is worth asking how would Andrew Jackson “work it out?”
Andrew Jackson garnered respect and fame for his brutality towards Natives on the battlefield. As President he refused to honor the Supreme Court decision in Worcester v. Georgia which aimed to stop white settlers from further encroaching on Native land. In response to the decision Jackson said “Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.” Jackson proceeded to give white settlers free reign over sovereign Native land. Furthermore, Andrew Jackson himself owned slaves. There is ZERO reason to believe that Andrew Jackson would have “worked it out” in a way that even remotely honored the humanity of people of color.
For Donald Trump to be lamenting this man’s absence from the Civil War era is just the latest example of his commitment to white supremacy. Trump’s record is undeniable. There is his obsession with Chicago and locating all Black people in ghettos filled with unrelenting violence. Or his painting all Mexican and Latinx immigrants as gangsters and criminals. Then there was Trump taking out a full page ad in four daily New York papers calling for the death penalty in the Central Park 5 case. He then doubled down on their guilt despite DNA evidence exonerating them and a confession from the actual rapist. Then of course there are the racially discriminatory renting practices which resulted in Trump being sued. There is simply no denying Trump’s worldview is one of whiteness. That is why David Duke and the KKK enthusiastically support him. That is why Richard Spencer and the fascist Alt-Right support him. And Trump supports them, hence Steve Bannon. This all has very real impacts in our own communities.
Choosing Sides and Shaping the World
Right now in Northfield, MN at St. Olaf College students have brought the campus to a grinding halt. On Saturday the latest in a string of racist events lead to students of color on campus demanding the institution respond systemically. At the same time police have stolen the life of another young unarmed Black boy, Jordan Edwards. Everywhere we turn communities of color are being terrorized by manifestations of whiteness. Families are being torn apart by ICE. Mothers are mourning their children whose lives have been stolen by the people sworn to protect them. And students are being denied safe spaces to learn and better themselves. Make no mistake this is happening because we – white people—have lost touch with our own humanity. This happens before we are conscious of it, it happens via the worldview we are socialized into. But because we are born in the water doesn’t mean we have to stay in it. “I didn’t know” is not acceptable. Everywhere we turn the reality of whiteness is slapping us in the face. Our job is to listen to people of color. Our job is to learn our history. Our job is to demand an end to the terror.
I think about the bumper sticker on that car and the part that jumps out is the “keeping history alive” part. What history do they want to keep alive? I wonder if the history being kept alive is the same history that would “Make America Great Again.” If the videos of police executing unarmed teenage boys are not enough to wake us up I’m terrified of what will. But I’m more terrified that we still lack the moral courage to stand up to whiteness and fight for humanity, our own most primarily.