Between us, my wife and I have five great-great-grandfathers who fought in the Civil War to end slavery and preserve the Union. One died during the war. Two others died later from chronic ailments brought home from sadistic Confederate prisons. (The one whose Grand Army of the Republic medal is pictured narrowly escaped being starved to death in captivity within sight of the genteel mansions of Richmond.)
Americans absolutely should remember the Civil War and its lessons. Alongside the genocide — both deliberate and accidental — of our continent’s native peoples, the Civil War was the cruelest event in our history. Understanding the war’s causes and effects can help guide us away from anything resembling the same mistakes, of which the biggest by far was turning a blind eye to the evils of slavery and white supremacy.
It is scandalous to see Americans in 2020 standing up in defense of Confederate monuments and the Confederate battle flag. These are not wholesome tributes to shared misfortune or glorious defense of tradition. They are overt symbols of nostalgia for a racist past. We should no more countenance statues of Robert E. Lee and KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest in public spaces than Germans would allow statues of Hitler’s henchman Hermann Göring. They certainly are part of history. They are unworthy of any form of honor.
I couldn’t care less whether some jackass keeps a framed Confederate flag above his fireplace or flies one from his pickup. But to hell with Lee and all the other racist scoundrels who tried to tear this country apart. Pull down their statues and consign their names to oblivion. I’m done being diplomatic about it.
Skin in the game
For a white West Coast newspaper editor to come out against today’s neo-Confederates and their apologists is a low-risk gesture. Not “no-risk” — it’s shocking how many Pacific Northwest residents deploy racist symbolism, at least sometimes as a provocative way to push back against urban elitists. But outright citizen-to-citizen violence toward other races and their defenders diminished in the wake of our lingering shame over Japanese-American World War II internments. The KKK, a toxic voice of anti-immigrant fervor in cities including Astoria and Bellingham in my grandfather’s time, lost traction here by the 1930s. So I can condemn racism without much personal consequence.
But few of us, if we’re willing to admit it, are very far from the stupid tribal prejudices and loutish rivalries that form the framework of systemic racism. Am I racist? I like to think not, though this is such a white-majority area it would be slightly challenging to find anyone to be actively racist against. Not that lack of proximity to other races is any inoculation against bigotry. I’m mortified to say that 35 years ago I once sat around and laughed at disgusting racist jokes told by a high school friend who probably hadn’t spent a cumulative hour in his life in the company of African-Americans. Today, I hope he’d know better, and that if he didn’t, I’d stop him and walk away.
Being a racial minority in a nearly all-Native American primary school taught me that friendship is far more than skin deep, and that kids of every race have more to fear from grownups than from each other. Courtesy, hospitality and curiosity greeted me there — and wherever I’ve gone in life, including traditional Quechua villages in the Andes and mosques on remote Muslim islands during the First Gulf War. I must have seemed like a ridiculous alien. Perhaps racist jokes are still told about me. Immunized by white privilege, I can complacently rejoice in good manners triumphing over bad taste. Others aren’t so fortunate.
In the aftermath of the George Floyd slaying and protests, I see people assert that staying out of trouble with police simply requires obeying the law. Goodness knows, I’ve never had anything other than friendly and professional interactions with law officers, whom I genuinely respect for helping preserve the peace. Most are no more racist than I am — not very. But for me to assume Black people have the same experience with police as I do would be ridiculous. It’s obvious that many Blacks and Natives are arrested, killed, traumatized and imprisoned for little or no good reason. It must stop.
Kind and honest are the words that first spring to mind when thinking about my dad — along with strong, adventurous, smart, and appallingly bad taste in music. A civic-minded small-town lawyer who spent World War II as an Army officer building roads to and through the Yukon, he was a solid member of the Greatest Generation.
So it hurts to say he also was a racist. Mostly, his racism wasn’t outspoken like that of his brother-in-law, my well-loved Uncle Frank, a Seattle grocer. Frank was flagrant about it — unreeling some groan-worthy generalization or falsehood about Blacks and then passing it off by saying, “Sure, I’m a racist. We all are. I’m just honest enough to admit to it.”
Being a good guy in other respects is no guarantee that someone can perceive injustice. The anti-slavery Union side in the Civil War had its share of vicious bigots. The military as a whole struggled at least through Vietnam to overcome bias against non-whites. Jews and other minorities also often faced steep hurdles to advancement. My dad was very much a member of the club and saw nothing wrong with how the system was rigged.
Heroic as Dad was, I’ve learned he and other white officers and servicemen were astoundingly unfair to the thousands of African-Americans who endured untold hardships while providing much of the labor and skill required for the Alaska Highway and Canol Pipeline. This racism starts with neglect — the crucial role of Blacks in World War II’s most monumental construction project has been nearly erased. Their work was undervalued at the time and their sacrifices taken for granted then and forever.
In this and other ways, Dad’s attitudes toward Blacks revealed a fundamental lack of empathy or pity. They were, for him, too “other” to really bother about. It amounted to a sad diminishment — not of them, but of himself. So it is for America today, struggling to find a path through to a future — a time when the assertion “everyone is created equal” is acted upon as a shared truth by us all. We won’t get there by pretending a problem doesn’t exist, or by blaming only the police for racial dirty work in which we all are complicit.