Cornell Professor: How the Confederate Flag Represents Slavery

Edward E. Baptist talks of the legacy of slavery in today’s economy.

By David BrownJune 26, 2015 11:18 am|

Politicians are asking for the Confederate flag to be taken down. People are spray-painting “Black Lives Matter” on Confederate statues. The debate over the meaning behind the Confederacy has been ongoing for decades – but only in light of the recent Charleston shooting has it garnered national attention. Some say this week’s sudden collapse of official support of the Confederate flag was 150 years in the making.

Edward E. Baptist, a historian and associate professor at Cornell University, confronts the simplistic narrative of Confederate defenders in the book “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery in the Making of American Capitalism.” A lot of historians say it challenges the underlying notion about slavery as a pre-modern institution and not as a part of what modern America is today.

On the Confederate flag’s legacy:

“It is a big part of who we are. It’s not who we always have to be. It certainly doesn’t have to be as big a part of who we are, but certainly the legacy of slavery is deeply woven into the fabric of the United States – not just in the South, not just in the places where the Confederate flag has been an emblem of white resistance to desegregation ever since the 1960s.”

On America’s effort to distinguish itself from the past:

“I think what you see in the wake of the Civil War … is an attempt to reinvent the American memory of the Civil War, reconstruction and of the institutions of slavery that preceded. … When you couple that with a rising tide of anti-black racism that you see in that period, what you find is the conclusion that a lot of white Americans draw coming out of that period, which is that the Civil War was a kind of a mistake … that there was no essential cause that divided North from South … and we’re left with this memorialization of the war that leaves out a lot of the actual causes of the Civil War.”

On slavery’s economic impact:

“Starting the late 1790s, the United States replaces [tobacco] with cotton, which turns out to be the most important commodity of the Industrial Revolution, which in turn shapes the global economy that we all live in and are all a part of today. … The reality is that the entire country benefited and continues to benefit from the disproportionate exploitation of African-American labor, African-American wealth – and this is something the entire country needs to tackle.”

On the symbolic importance of flags:

“I think the American flag is much more ambiguous. It’s a nation which like all nations was founded in ambivalence, and has pursued its ideals in a kind of wavering course over time. But I will backtrack just a second to say the Confederate nation was not founded in ambivalence – it’s one of the few nations where we can say that. It was founded explicitly for the defense and the expansion of slavery, and that’s what it stands for. So the Confederate flag is bad all the way through – the United States flag is much more complicated.”