Recently, while participating in a conference on cross-racial dialogue, I suggested white people need to stop talking about how Lincoln or the North freed the slaves. Since an estimated 500,000 blacks either fought in or supported the Union army, the assertion white people freed the slaves is racist rhetoric. Nearly as many white people fought to maintain slavery as to dismantle it. The infusion of black regiments and logistical support were pivotal to the Union victory when war fatigue had led many Northern whites to call for the end of the war and the permanent separation of the nation. It may be more historically accurate to say black people saved the Union.
In response to my statement, a white woman in the audience, said, “We need to remember blacks fought on the side of the Confederacy as well.” I disputed her claim, pointing out that Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy had resisted such proposals as contradicting the purposes of the rebellion and its defense of slavery. While I was correct about Davis, she was also correct in her assertion. Upon returning home and further research, I learned that a limited number of blacks did fight for the Confederacy, though there is considerable debate over whether they were compelled or volunteered.
Reflecting on my exchange with that woman, I wish I’d responded differently. Instead of disputing the facts, I wish I’d asked, “Why do we need to remember that? How does remembering that some blacks fought for the Confederacy advance racial reconciliation and equity today?” I had highlighted the participation of blacks in the Civil War in order to shift conversations that too often portray blacks as lazy and apathetic about injustice, in need of rescue by well-intentioned white people. Her response, whether she realized it or not, suggested the opposite, that blacks actually found their oppression acceptable. Of course, if I’d asked my question, I doubt that would have been her response. I imagine she would have argued for a fair presentation of history and the acknowledgment of the exception to the rule.
White people love the exception to the rule. Over the past few years, I’ve had countless white people inform me that there were…
- Black slave traders
- Black slave owners
- Blacks who wouldn’t leave their owners and plantations after the Civil War
- Blacks who wanted to leave the US and return to Africa
- Blacks who supported segregation
- Blacks who opposed affirmative action.
- Blacks who disagreed on the need for reparations
- Blacks who voted for Trump.
These exceptions to the rule are always offered as a counter to my descriptions of the brutality and de-humanization of black people through slavery, Jim Crow and systemic racism. They infer I’m exaggerating the seriousness of the problem. After all, if some blacks were and are content in such systems, they can’t be nearly as bad as I suggest. More disturbing, the exception to the rule implies that – since a few black people were or are active participants in oppression – any critique of white behavior is unjust. Black people did it too! Having established this false equivalency, white people can shut down any further discussion of slavery or racism.
Of course, any parent of a teenager knows that arguing an exception to the rule always has one intent – to deflect attention from the rule. The answer to my question – “How does remembering that some blacks fought in the Confederacy advance racial reconciliation and equity today? – is easy. It doesn’t.
Such exceptions only distract us from honestly addressing larger truths, such as the fact that the industrial slavery of the United States was some of the most brutal and dehumanizing in human history. Does anyone really want to argue that a few blacks fighting in the Confederacy meant black people actually supported and approved of their subjection? In truth, many of the stories of the blacks employed to assist the Confederacy end with those same blacks fleeing across Union lines at the first opportunity.
Additionally, such arguments fail to acknowledge one of the most damaging aspects of racism – it is often internalized by its victims. Throughout history, there have been blacks who preferred a quiet accommodation with white supremacy than the real risks and dangers of confronting a force that had repeatedly killed those who opposed it. While blacks should rightly be proud of their ancestors who fought for their freedom, pitting “those who fought” against “those who didn’t” serves one purpose – sustaining white supremacy.
This defense of whiteness is especially obvious in the common white retort that some blacks owned slaves. While this is true, it is largely irrelevant. Offering black slave owners as character witnesses for white culture is as ridiculous as believing the marital accolades of a woman with two black eyes. Those blacks who tolerated or participated in oppression were never white allies. They were tragic accomplices in their own victimization.
I’m tired of white people who – when it comes to slavery and racial discrimination – know every exception to the rule, but hardly anything about the rule. For example, a vast majority of white people do not know one of the most basic pieces of information about slavery – how many black men and women were abducted or born into slavery in the United States? That most white people know how many Jews were killed in the German Holocaust, but not the number of lives destroyed by the American Holocaust is damning, especially since conservative estimates place the carnage at about 12 million people. Those who focus on the exceptions are attempting to distract attention from the rule.
Here is the rule. White people were responsible for the creation of slavery in America. White people de-humanized, tortured, raped, and murdered millions of these enslaved people over the course of 400 years. Upon their emancipation, white people were responsible for the creation of Jim Crow and systems of racial discrimination that continued to abuse, mistreat and murder black people. White people are responsible for the continuation of system racism in America today. The exceptions to this rule are irrelevant.
Ironically, while emphasizing the exceptions is often presented as an attempt at a more complete and balanced historical perspective, it is not. There were nearly 500,000 blacks who actively fought against the Confederacy and a few thousand, at most, who cooperated with it. That this is the only time white people seem to value the minority viewpoint should end any doubt – our true motivation is to diminish responsibility for a horrific history and sustain white supremacy.