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More to racism than Southern icons

THOMAS Jefferson was not only a prolific writer. Recent evidence regarding his affair with his slave Sally Hemings suggests he was prolific in the bedroom as well. According to a study done by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, Jefferson may have fathered all of Hemings' six children in addition to the six he had with his wife. He was "gettin' jiggy" before jiggy was even a word.

South Carolina's insistence on flying the Confederate flag above its Statehouse and Virginia's proposal to change Lee-Jackson-King day into two holidays have been the causes celébrè of recent weeks. Add the evidence about Jefferson philandering with a woman he paid for, and it's apparent that this nation has a racist past, a racist present, and a racist future. The effects of this racism can be mitigated, however, by trying to disregard it.

Black writer James Baldwin once wrote in a letter to his nephew, "You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a n--." By the same token, a Confederate flag or a Confederate holiday is only as destructive as people believe it to be. The only thing the "stars and bars" ever actively discriminated against was good taste in flag making.

As for Jefferson, his alleged affair with Sally Hemings should not completely diminish his legacy as one of the nation's and the University's founding fathers. Whether or not he actually believed that "all men are created equal" does not significantly lessen the importance of the Declaration of Independence, nor should it take away from his other innumerable positive accomplishments.

This is not to say that any of these three hotbeds of racial tension should be ignored, however. South Carolina should remove the Confederate flag and Virginia should abolish the holiday commemorating Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Jefferson's white descendents, who have "generally resisted the notion of black Jefferson descendents," ("Study finds strong evidence Jefferson fathered slave son, The Washington Post, Jan. 27) should accept those who are likely their black relatives. Unfortunately, it's possible none of these things will happen. Even if they do, that will not eradicate the legacy of slavery or the Civil War. As long as there are re-enactors who spend entire weekends thinking they are Stonewall Jackson, the ghosts of the Confederacy still will be with us.

Nonetheless, these ghosts aren't necessarily evil. If those who repeat the slogan, "It's heritage, not hate," actually believe it, Confederate symbols shouldn't be equated with current discriminatory actions. Though it makes as much sense as an Italian-American proudly proclaiming that he's a descendent of Mussolini, one must respect Confederate descendants' right to express themselves as they see fit -- even if this expression does take the form of a flag atop a government building or a state holiday.

The real problem is the possibility that the symbols of the South's racist past do have some effect on those in positions of power. The answer, then, is not to remove the flag or abolish the holiday, but to remove and abolish the people. If the governor of South Carolina walks into the Statehouse, looks up at the Confederate flag, and thinks, "It's great to be white," he shouldn't be the governor of South Carolina. If Lee-Jackson day is created on the Friday before King day, and somebody comes back to work after enjoying the long weekend and fires a couple black employees in a fit of racist zeal, he shouldn't be in a position to fire people anyway. Furthermore, if either of these actions do take place, they don't occur because of a flag or a holiday -- they occur because of racism.

The argument often is set forth that even if these Confederate symbols don't bring about racist actions, they are psychologically damaging to the descendants of those oppressed by the Confederacy. It's likely this is true. Nonetheless, these psychological effects are controllable to a certain extent. The South's history and heritage are as important to Southerners as blacks' history and heritage are to them. The South's history has more blemishes, but those blemishes shine through more clearly due solely to their temporal proximity.

It is because of the temporal and geographic proximity of Confederate heritage that it often is sanctioned by government. Some have correctly argued that Confederate heritage should be honored, as long as it's not on top of a government building. However, spending countless hours fighting to get the flag moved from above the building to the basement of the building seems a futile exercise.

Comedian George Carlin once called the South, "... just another minority that was screwed by the American government." If that "minority" feels the need to raise a flag and celebrate a holiday, so be it. Eventually, the Southern minority will recognize that it's no longer the majority it once was.

(Chris DelGrosso's column appears Mondays in The Cavalier Daily.)


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