Images circulated, in the aftermath of Dylann Roof’s racially motivated mass shooting at the historically black Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, included not only numerous pictures of Roof brandishing the Confederate battle flag but one of him squatting over a rumpled U.S. flag and trampling it underfoot. His disrespect to Old Glory suggests that he sees himself as having taken the “red pill,” seen through the American state’s ideological pretenses to represent ordinary people, and discerned its true nature as the representative of an alien, oppressive system of power. In this he would be right, as far as it goes.
As a left-wing anarchist, I work constantly to combat the ideological conditioning by which the average person is taught from their earliest years to view the American flag as representing “We the People,” or some common ideals of liberty and justice shared by all Americans regardless of class or race. Howard Zinn wrote that “our leaders”
bombard us with phrases like “national interest,” “national security,” and “national defense” as if all of these concepts applied equally to all of us, colored or white, rich or poor, as if General Motors and Halliburton have the same interests as the rest of us, as if George Bush has the same interest as the young man or woman he sends to war.
Surely, in the history of lies told to the population, this is the biggest lie. In the history of secrets, withheld from the American people, this is the biggest secret: that there are classes with different interests in this country. To ignore that — not to know that the history of our country is a history of slaveowner against slave, landlord against tenant, corporation against worker, rich against poor — is to render us helpless before all the lesser lies told to us by people in power.
The American state, like every other state in history, serves the interests of the class coalition that controls it. The ideological myths of patriotism, of a “national interest” uniting exploiters and exploited, serve a powerful legitimizing function for class exploitation. And they are insidious, because we absorb them unconsciously from our earliest years. But if this is true of all states and flags, it’s even more true of the Confederacy than of most. As Ta-Nehisi Coates (@tanehisicoates) said on Twitter (June 20):
It means something — to children specifically — when symbols are just accepted. It defines the possible.
If you’re born into “heritage not hate” and that’s your childhood. All other conversations are harder. And all other myths go down easier.
If an American who sees herself as sharing a common “national interest” or identity with the Rockefellers, Gateses and Waltons is deluded, what does that say about someone who photographs himself standing in front of a plantation house holding the Confederate battle flag?
The political leadership of the southern states who pushed secession through, and the Confederate government they established, were inseparable from the interests of the planter aristocracy. As Coates pointed out on the same day, the interests of the slave-holding aristocracy were written into the Confederate constitution itself as its paramount founding principle. You can’t get much plainer than that on what class interest controlled the eleven seceding states and their confederation.
Slavery and racism not only create privilege for those with white skin at the expense of those with black skin; they also make everyone, black and white alike, easier for the propertied classes to exploit. Ever since the first settlement of Virginia in the early 17th century, the main function of racism has been to make it easier for economic ruling classes to extract surplus labor from the producing population.
This is not in any way to suggest, as do many (predominantly white male) workerist Old Left types, that race is “really” all about class, or that if we focus on abolishing class exploitation other issues like racial and gender justice will sort themselves out after the Revolution. No doubt most agrarian capitalists of the south, both before and after the Civil War, were subjectively quite sincere in their racism. And racist ideology and social structures, regardless of their functional economic role in facilitating economic exploitation, take on a life of their own. Anyone who thinks structural racism isn’t real hasn’t been paying attention to the arc of events since Ferguson. And anyone who thinks white skin privilege isn’t real should compare the media images of Dylann Roof opening Christmas presents as a child, and the sympathy for his parents, with frenzied attempts to find Facebook images proving Michael Brown “was no angel” or condemnations of his parents for raising a “thug.”
But racism and racial oppression caught on so quickly in the first place, and have resonated so powerfully ever since, because of the exploitative function they served. In the early days of colonial Virginia, the differences in legal status between white indentured servants and black slaves were not very well defined. Servants of all races tended to fraternize and intermarry, and white and black servants participated in Bacon’s Rebellion against the landed aristocracy. It was in the aftermath of Bacon’s defeat that the first servile code was passed, and white skin privilege and the ideology of racism were heavily promoted to divide the producing classes against each other along racial lines.
Since then racism has served admirably in dividing working people and making us easier to rule and exploit. In the Depression-era south, the sharecroppers’ union was defeated with the help of racism, when — with covert encouragement from the big land owners — it split along racial lines into separate black and white unions. After WWII southern industrialists used racism to defeat union drives.
White skin privilege gives whites unearned advantages not shared by blacks. But racism ultimately increases the net level of surplus labor extraction and leaves even whites worse off economically than they would be in a just society.
So Dylann Roof was naive to think he had any interests in common with the planters who created the Confederacy in 1861, or that anyone like him would have benefited from living under slavery. And if he thought the Confederacy state and its flag, any more than any other state, existed for the benefit of anyone besides the big landlords and capitalists who controlled its government, he was a damn fool.