Tuesday, October 16, 2018
Opinion

The rebel con job

I've lived 55 years in the South and I grew up liking the Confederate flag. I haven't flown one for many decades — but for a reason that might surprise you.

I know the South well. We lived wherever the Marine Corps stationed my father: Georgia, Virginia, the Carolinas. My favorite uncle wasn't in the military, but he did pack a .45-caliber Thompson submachine gun in his trunk. He was a leader in the Ku Klux Klan. Despite my role models, I was an inept racist as a kid. I got into trouble once in the first grade for calling a classmate the n-word. He was Hispanic.

As I grew up and acquired empathy, I learned that for black folks, the flutter of the Confederate flag felt like a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. And for the most prideful flag-wavers, clearly that response was the point. I mean, come on. It's a battle flag.

What the flag symbolizes for blacks is enough reason to take it down. But there's another reason white Southerners shouldn't fly it. Or sport it on our state-issued license plates, as some do here in North Carolina. The Confederacy — and the slavery that spawned it — was also one big con job on the Southern white working class. A con job funded by some of the antebellum one-percenters, and one that continues today in a similar form.

You don't have to be an economist to see that forcing blacks — a third of the South's laborers — to work without pay drove down wages for everyone else. And not just in agriculture. A quarter of enslaved blacks worked in the construction, manufacturing and lumbering trades, cutting wages even for skilled white workers.

Thanks to the profitability of this no-wage/low-wage combination, a majority of American one-percenters were Southerners. Slavery made Southern states the richest in the country. The South was richer than any other country except England. But that vast wealth was invisible outside the plantation ballrooms. With low wages and few schools, Southern whites suffered a much lower land ownership rate and a far lower literacy rate than Northern whites.

My ancestor, Canna Hyman, and his two sons did own land and fought under that flag. A note from our family history says: "Someone came for them while they were plowing one day. They put their horses up and all three went away to the war and only one son, William, came back."

Like Canna, most Southerners didn't own slaves. But they were persuaded to risk their lives and limbs for the right of a few to get rich as Croesus from slavery. For their sacrifices and their votes, they earned two things before and after the Civil War. First, a very skinny slice of the immense Southern pie. And second, the thing that made those slim rations palatable then and now: the shallow satisfaction of knowing blacks had no slice at all.

How did the plantation-owning one-percenters mislead so many Southern whites?

They managed this con job partly with a propaganda technique that will be familiar to modern Americans. Starting in the 1840s, wealthy Southerners supported more than 30 regional pro-slavery magazines, along with many pamphlets and novels that falsely touted slave ownership as having benefits that would — in today's lingo — trickle down to benefit non-slave-owning whites and even blacks. The flip side of the coin of this propaganda is the mistaken notion that any gain by blacks comes at the expense of the white working class.

Today's version of this con job no longer supports slavery, but still works in the South and thrives in pro-trickle-down think tanks, magazines, newspapers, talk radio and TV news shows.

For example, a map of states that didn't expand Medicaid — which would actually be a boon mostly to poor whites — resembles a map of the old Confederacy with a few other poor, rural states thrown in. Another indication that this divisive propaganda works on Southern whites came in 2012. Mitt Romney and Barack Obama evenly split the white working class in the West, Midwest and Northeast. But in the South, we went 2-1 for Romney.

Lowering the flag because of the harm done to blacks is the right thing to do. We also need to lower it because it symbolizes the material harm that the ideology of the Confederacy did to Southern whites, which lasts even to this day.

One can love the South without flying the battle flag. But it won't help to get rid of an old symbol if we can't also rid ourselves of the self-destructive beliefs that go with it. Only by shedding those, too, will whites in the South finally catch up to the rest of the country in wages, health and education.

Frank Hyman lives in Durham, N.C. He's a carpenter and stonemason and policy analyst for Southern Working Class Political Consulting. This is reprinted with permission of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where it first appeared.

Comments
Editorial: Restart selection process for Florida Supreme Court justices

Editorial: Restart selection process for Florida Supreme Court justices

The Florida Supreme Court reached the right conclusion by ruling that the next governor has the authority to appoint three new justices to the court rather than departing Gov. Rick Scott. That is practical and reasonable, and it reflects the will of ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Editorial: Bilirakis mimics Trump, colleagues in misleading voters

Editorial: Bilirakis mimics Trump, colleagues in misleading voters

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis wants voters to believe he is different than his Republican colleagues in Congress and President Donald Trump. The Palm Harbor Republican says he pays more attention to local issues than to the president, claims he doesnȁ...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Editorial: Answering questions about Hillsborough school tax

Editorial: Answering questions about Hillsborough school tax

The Hillsborough County school tax on the Nov. 6 ballot is a smart, necessary investment in the nation's eighth-largest school system. The 10-year, half-penny sales tax would create stronger, safer schools and a healthier learning environment for mor...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Editorial: Tampa water project benefits entire region

Editorial: Tampa water project benefits entire region

A proposal that goes to the three-county utility Tampa Bay Water on Monday could benefit residents, the economy and the environment across the region. The utility's governing board will consider a proposal by the city of Tampa to redirect highly trea...
Published: 10/12/18
Updated: 10/15/18
Editorial: Rays’ purchase of Rowdies good for St. Petersburg

Editorial: Rays’ purchase of Rowdies good for St. Petersburg

The Tampa Bay Rays’ purchase of the Rowdies soccer team adds some stability to the region’s roster of professional sports franchises. It also guarantees that the Rowdies, who have amassed an enthusiastic fan base in a short time, will k...
Published: 10/12/18
Editorial: Remember Mexico Beach when next evacuation order comes

Editorial: Remember Mexico Beach when next evacuation order comes

When the sun rose Wednesday, Mexico Beach was a sleepy town of 1,200 people on Florida's northern Gulf coast. By sundown, it was gone. The pictures show the heartbreaking devastation left by Hurricane Michael in the Florida Panhandle. Entire neighbor...
Published: 10/12/18
Shortsighted opposition to TECO

Shortsighted opposition to TECO

The destruction from Hurricane Michael is only the latest reminder of Florida's growing vulnerability to extreme weather, rising sea levels and other impacts of a warming climate. But the Sierra Club's opposition to Tampa Electric Co.'s plans to retr...
Published: 10/12/18
Times recommends: Chronister for Hillsborough sheriff

Times recommends: Chronister for Hillsborough sheriff

Florida sheriffs have long hand-plucked their successors from within the ranks. While he is a product of this tradition, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister is uniquely qualified to be elected on his own merits.Then-Sheriff David Gee surprise...
Published: 10/11/18
Updated: 10/12/18
Times recommends: Yes on Florida Supreme Court retention

Times recommends: Yes on Florida Supreme Court retention

One justice on the Florida Supreme Court faces a merit retention vote in November, essentially an up-or-down vote of confidence allowing him to remain on the bench. Merit retention votes occur at least one year after the justice’s initial appo...
Published: 10/11/18
Times recommends: Yes on retaining 4 appeals judges

Times recommends: Yes on retaining 4 appeals judges

The 2nd District Court of Appeal judges are on the Nov. 6 ballot for merit retention. Voters are being asked whether the appellate judges should be retained for another six-year term.Two pieces of information are helpful in deciding. First, the Flori...
Published: 10/11/18