Opinion

Southerners, whites benefited from slavery, whether they owned slaves or not -- Heather Redding

Heather Redding, 39, an Orange County resident married to a UNC alumnus, holds up a Confederate Battle flag as she urges the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees to remove the controversial Silent Sam statue. She spoke at a public hearing in November.
Heather Redding, 39, an Orange County resident married to a UNC alumnus, holds up a Confederate Battle flag as she urges the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees to remove the controversial Silent Sam statue. She spoke at a public hearing in November. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Yes, this is another op-ed about Silent Sam, another commentary on Confederate symbols, another attempt to start a discussion about race.

As long as racism exists in this nation, as long as black and brown lives continue to matter less than white lives, then yes, there will always be one more op-ed.

While Silent Sam continues to dominate the landscape of McCorkle Place at UNC-Chapel Hill, a common narrative is being retold by many who defend Confederate symbols, a narrative that demands neither acknowledgment of nor an honest account of the past. Many people who cling to their Southern heritage through emblems of the Confederacy recite the fact that the majority of antebellum North Carolinians were not slave owners. They treat this fact as a whitewash of the truth, in an attempt to absolve their non-slave owning ancestors of the benefits they gained from their white supremacy and complicity in racial oppression.

However, this perspective gives undue credit – or at least a “moral pass” – to many of the non-slave owning families. It validates a false dichotomy that equates slave ownership (solely) with white supremacy, and the absence of slaves with benevolence.

This is a dangerous fallacy that has been perpetuated through multiple generations, implying that white families who lived in a slave-based economy but weren’t slave owners themselves played no part in – and gained no benefit from – the racialized history of our nation.

The truth, however, is that in antebellum North Carolina racism and white supremacist ideology would have been the normative default belief system, used to justify and sustain an institution that allowed not only the South, but the entire nation, to prosper.

For modern-day North Carolinians to falsely equate the absence of historical slave ownership with compassion allows them to shirk responsibility and accountability. It gives these Southern families a “pass” to ignore their families’ historical contributions to racial inequity, and assumes their ancestors partook in none of the other cultural practices that oppressed black people and advantaged white people.

Further, it ignores the commercial and societal impacts of the 34,658 North Carolinians who in 1860 did trade in human flesh, who did participate in the violent commercialization of human life, who did consider black people inferior, and who did believe in their own racial superiority.

Regardless of whether one’s ancestors directly owned slaves, those individuals nevertheless existed in an socioeconomic structure largely sustained by white supremacist ideology.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis even acknowledged the South’s economic dependency on slavery when he said, “the productions of the South in cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco, for the full development and continuance of which the labor of African slaves was and is indispensable, had swollen to an amount which formed nearly three-fourths of the exports of the whole United States and had become absolutely necessary to the wants of civilized man” (1861).

Venerating the Confederacy in public space may celebrate heritage, but it’s a heritage that is inextricably tied to the total dehumanization and subjugation of black people. So yes, until there is an honest discussion of what “the Confederacy” and “Southern heritage” represented and were built upon, and until the full symbolism behind and embodied in the Silent Sam statue is clearly understood by all members of the UNC community and larger public, you can be assured there will be another op-ed.

Heather Redding lives in Orange County.

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