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Contextualizing the hate and bigotry on AU's campus

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American University

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Contextualizing the hate and bigotry on AU's campus

Reflecting on last night's events

9.27.17

By Joe Palekas

At around 10:35 PM on Tuesday, September 26, my classmates and I left our History of Racism class and were confronted with a symbol of violent oppression and subjugation. The flag of the Confederacy was pinned to a bulletin board. The text on the flag read “Huzzah for Dixie” and “I wish I lived in the Land of Cotton.” Attached to the flag was a stem of cotton.

In light of the current controversy surrounding the kneeling of NFL players for the national anthem, and the President of the United States’ assertion that kneeling is disrespectful to the American flag and its associated values, I think it is important to remember the Confederate flag and its associated values.
In 1861, just weeks before the Confederacy officially declared war on the United States, the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, gave a speech that would become known as the cornerstone speech. During this speech, he compared American and Confederate ideals. “But our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”

If in our modern moment we accept that the flag of the United States represents the values and beliefs enshrined by our government, we must accept that the flag of the Confederate States is itself representative of the values and beliefs enshrined by that government.
The symbol of the Confederate Flag displayed prominently on campus was enough in itself to constitute a violent threat toward Black people. The posters of that symbol, however, took this a step further when they attached a sprig of cotton as well as the message “I wish I lived in the Land of Cotton.” As Edward Baptist explores in his book, “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” the foundation of American capitalism was driven in large part by one commodity: cotton. And cotton was planted, cultivated, and harvested by slave labor. In much of today’s popular reimagining of slavery (because that is what it is – a reimagining), the “massive and cruel engineering required to rip a million people from their homes, brutally drive them to new, disease-ridden places, and make them live in terror and hunger as they continually built and rebuilt a commodity-generating empire” was forgotten. Slavery was violent, intentional, and intrinsic to the economic and political power of the United States.
With that understanding, the cotton in conjunction with the confederate flag passes the line of free speech. It is a violent threat, based on a long and bloody history of brutalization, subjugation, and murder. If American University specifically, and the United States more broadly, is to deal with these threats to Black individuals on our campus, we must recognize the history and reality of these symbols. We cannot dismiss them out of hand. We cannot designate them as abnormal to our history. We (White people) must acknowledge our complicity, however subtle, in structures of white supremacy that operate today to sanitize slavery and curtail the Confederacy. Then, we must stand in solidarity with Black people and work with them to confront and dismantle this violent ideology, wherever it surfaces.

*We at The Rival denounce the events of Tuesday night and extend our utmost support to those affected by these unacceptable acts of discrimination.