Southering: Why We Want the South to be the Racist Scapegoat

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The South’s past and present relationship with the Confederate flag is shameful and horrendous. What it stood for and currently stands for was and is the most un-American movement in American history—a time when half the country wanted to dissolve the United States of America. The memory of the Civil War and the ghost of slavery continues to haunt the South along with the rest of the country, and for this reason alone, this symbol and symbols like it should cease to be on public display and be relegated to historical sites for educational purposes.

Let’s not be mistaken, the above statement should be the primary understanding of Confederate-glorifying images. What is to follow now is a slight direction change. It is about the purpose the Confederate flag serves for white elites. The Confederate flag serves as a portal through which non-Southern white people can project their own guilt of racial bias onto the Southerner. Let me explain.

When a racist attacks someone of a minority, be it police officers murdering an unarmed black man or a racist attacking an Asian American because of some misguided anger over COVID-19,  racial topics flood the airwaves and social media. Many brilliant activists and scholars give keen insight about white privilege and the systemic racism that exists in every square inch of this country. Well-meaning white folks feel convicted and ashamed. They want to be an ally to minorities and marginalized people. Invariably at some point a video or article comes up with a call to remove a Confederate statue or flag. This is the moment where a subtle shift clicks into place in the minds of many white people. Well-meaning white folks can now decry these racist symbols (which they are) and “do their part” by demanding these backward communities take down their monuments of hate. 

A well-meaning white person may see the Confederate flag and the subconscious will connect the dots from there. The Confederate flag leads to thoughts of the Civil War, which leads to thoughts of slavery, which leads to images of the American South, which lets us off the hook because the subconscious has connected our guilt over institutional racism back to the American South. This is very soothing if we live in overwhelmingly white communities in Suburban Massachusetts or West Michigan. The Southerner has become the scapegoat onto which we project our sins and from whom we demand repentance. We have committed the sin of southering. The othering of the American South.

As people, we have a tendency to identify ourselves with groups. We are likely to form these groups around who is in and who is out or who are like us and who are unlike us. The people who are unlike us become known as others, and others often become the objects of ridicule due to any designating factor not shared by the primary group. What is especially nefarious, though, is that this other status is often assigned based upon perceived differences leading to large groups othering people based upon stereotypes or otherwise misguided assumptions.

Cue entry of the American South, a region with a well-known history of racist atrocities, poor education, and distinct regional pride. The American South fits the bill perfectly to attract the odd looks and snickers of many who want to find someone to feel better than. (Case in point: Being from Tennessee and now living in Michigan, I find otherwise intelligent, accomplished professionals often feel it permissible to correct me on how to pronounce my own name, I assume due to my drawl.)

The South has grown into an influential subculture within the United States and also a culture that carries the stereotypes of being backward, simple-minded, and racist. Its history combined with these stereotypes create a wonderful scapegoat onto which we can off load our collective character flaws.

What is perhaps less known is that it was only days ago that the state of Rhode Island moved to change its official (yet largely unknown) name away from the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, a name literally built upon plantation slave labor. Even more blatantly the city seal of the Village of Whitesboro, N.Y., features a white man subduing a Native American man in a wrestling match. Additionally, 66 years after the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown V. Board of Education, New York and California remain among the most segregated school systems in the United States.

Yes, the truth remains that the Confederate flag is a racist symbol and should be taken down.  What might come as a surprise is that many Southerners will agree, only adding, “and if you want to see where racism really exists today, let’s look in a mirror together.” This is the moment of conviction, and many well-meaning white folks will dismissively scoff at this because we don’t want to believe we are part of the problem. We need the Southerner to be the racist so we can be innocent.

In Matt. 7:3, Jesus asks us, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Even though I would say that the Confederate flag is much more than a mere speck of sawdust, Christ invites us to do the difficult work of self-examination before we seek to examine the sins of another. As we are told by the prophet Isaiah, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). We owe it to minority children of God, our brothers and sisters, to repent from our bias even if we cannot see it in ourselves. Doing the hard work of examining our feelings, motives, opinions, and assumptions is a vital first step in helping all of God’s children participate in God’s shalom.

About the Author

Ben Lepper, Ph.D., is the administrator of Intersection Ministries, a CRC/RCA church in Holland, Mich., as well as an instructor of gospel literature at Cornerstone University. He currently resides in Hudsonville, Mich., with his wife Zurisadai.

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Comments

Thanks, Ben, for your thoughts on racism and the display of the confederate flag and all such confederate symbols. I would imagine nearly all people reading this article are against racism. But perhaps, not all define racism as narrowly as you seem to, or do all people relegate only racist thoughts to confederate images. We all have the freedom to make such judgements for ourselves. Your articles seems to define for all your readers how they must think in regard to racism and does not allow for personal discernment. Other institutions and individuals have historical ties to slavery such as George Washington, Wall Street (which originated as a slave market in the 1700s), Yale University, New York Life Insurance, Jack Daniels Whiskey to name a few. Are we to bemoan their existence or any good they have done? Racism is very divisive of our country and very hurtful. I doubt that narrow articles such as this are very helpful in resolving this enormous problem.

If we are going to look for images that divide people (such as the Confederate flag), Christians need to look no further than the Christian cross as a symbol that has polarized all of society and culture through the course of history. Speak of the speck of sawdust in contrast to the plank in one’s own eye. Christians, themselves, as well as the Bible, set themselves up as at enmity with the world. Talk about divisive. The symbol of Christianity is the cross that gets displayed on nearly every church. And, of course, when Christians categorize every religion other than Christianity, as false religion, it is easy to see how divisive the Christian faith is. Christians against the world. When Christians describe homosexualism as an abhorrent sin against God, do not Christians pit themselves against a growing segment of our society, or the world, which all along is growing more tolerant? Or how many conservative Christians allow no exceptions for allowing abortion, and think such people who have an abortion should be treated as criminals. Such Christians are demonstrating their divisive character with the world. Or we could talk about American politics and how Christians do as much to divide the country as anyone else, in the name of Jesus. Christians understand their primary citizenship as being with the kingdom of God and much less as a citizen of the country in which they live. In fact most churches will not display their national flag, as a statement that their primary allegiance is to God’s kingdom and not the kingdom of their physical residence. And so Christians continue to display the cross with pride, even though it is a symbol that divides our country and the world as much as, or more than any other symbol or image. So, to use the illustration that you used, I question how much articles like this are helpful when Christians fail to notice the plank in their own eye. Thanks, Ben, for your take on racism.

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