Affection

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William Jacobson updates his post on Matt Yglesias's racist-baiting, and responds to my comment:

Ta-Nehisi Coates asserts that Barbour was ignorant of history. Fine, call him ignorant. But don't call him someone who had "affection" for "white supremacist" organizations, or who was a "fan of moderate strains of white supremacist ideology." 

Coates claims that Yglesias and others in the left-blogosphere did not use the term "racist," but if you say that someone has an "affection" for a white supremacist organization, or shares such ideology, aren't you calling them a racist? That is the tactic I so despise in Yglesias' attack on Barbour. If you have the proof Barbour is or was racist, show us the proof. But if you don't have it, don't make the logical jump. 

Yglesias knew exactly what he was doing by framing his accusations as such. And it had nothing to do with painting Barbour as ignorant; it was all about making the racism charge stick. Coates, whose writing I have praised in the past, should acknowledge why Yglesias framed the "affection" argument as he did. Let's not play word games; Matthew Yglesias sought to portray Haley Barbour as a racist, but the quote upon which Yglesias based the accusation did not prove the charge.

I don't want to seem ungrateful--I most certainly appreciate Jacobson's praise. But I would like to respond to the notion that saying one has an affection for a white supremacist organization is tantamount to calling them a racist. 

This is a picture I took last summer, while visiting a small-town in western Tennessee. I went independent of the Atlantic, and mostly as a guy looking to see how the aftershocks of the Civil War exist in the places where it was actually fought. This picture is of a living history exhibition in a small town which sent a lot of soldiers off to fight in the Confederate Army. Since the Civil War, the town has shrunk to a double digit population

My opinions are quite clear--the facts show that the Confederate Army was not simply a white supremacist organization, but perhaps the most literal and deadly instrument of white supremacy ever. The people who were presenting the living history quite clear had affection for the Confederate Army, and for the Confederate cause, itself. By Jacobson's standard, it would be fair to call these people racist. I would strongly disagree. 

To be clear, the most bothersome aspect of the presentation was when they were hemmed into discussing causes, and offered up an ignorance of secession that went beyond willful--it was total, it was the air, it was Tennessee--at least as they knew it. But I talked to a lot of these people. They fed me and the group I was traveling with (Barbecue, cole slaw, potato salad. Damn good.)  of which I was the only black person. I really got no inkling that they were racist. They were doing this exercise in a graveyard where there forebears were buried, and I got the sense that were much more tied by the a belief in blood as identity, than any antagonism towards blacks. What I saw was a profound need to see their ancestors as honorable. As I've written before, I'm powerfully acquainted with that impulse. I'm also well acquainted with its pitfalls. 


It's possible the people in that town just put the old southern hospitality act on me. But I have never been interested in charging people without evidence. The point here is that one need not literally believe in white supremacy to have an affection for its instruments, anymore than one need been be a full-throated anti-Semite to have an affection for the instruments of Nazism. People have all sorts of motives--of which, I would classify ignorance willful and otherwise, not malice, as the most common.

Moreover, ignorance is still, in and of itself, dangerous. When you're the governor of a state with one of the largest black communities in the country, and the largest percentage of black people in the country, a lack of malice toward those communities should be the base-line. Not hating black people is entry level for a conversation. It isn't the conversation itself.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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