The Confederate Flag and White Resentment

The Confederate battle flag flies in the unincorporated town of Gap Mills, southeastern West Virginia.

The Confederate battle flag flies in the unincorporated town of Gap Mills, West Virginia. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Confederate flag is a scandalous American icon that will never go away. For example, former South Carolina governor, Nikki Haley, recently stated that the flag  represented “service, sacrifice, and heritage.” Then, she added, mass-murderer Dylann Roof “hijacked” the flag when he killed nine parishioners in a historically black church in Charleston. As a result of Roof’s actions, racist hate groups now embrace the Confederate flag as a symbol of white supremacy. However, Haley’s analysis is wrong. White resentment connects the Confederate flag from its Civil War origins, to the era of white nationalism and Donald Trump.

White resentment and the Confederate flag

What is “white resentment?” White resentment is the belief that non-white people are reaping privileges at the expense of “traditional” white Americans. In other words, white resentment is Affirmative Action for white people.

White resentment underpinned the Confederate States of America. As I discussed in an older piece, the southern Confederacy’s leaders formed their nation to protect and perpetuate racial slavery. Historian Stephanie McCurry defines the Confederacy as “a modern proslavery and anti-democratic state, dedicated to the proposition that all men were not created equal.” Confederates resented any perceived attempts by Abraham Lincoln and other northern politicians to end slavery in America. They also resented radical Abolitionists’ claims that blacks were in any way equal to whites. Confederate flags, therefore, symbolized these resentments.

White resentment is American

Of course, racism is a national, not just a southern phenomenon. In fact, racism is as American as apple pie and reality television. The legacy of racial slavery, however, distinguished southern racism from racism in other parts of the country. Southern racism was more personal because it embodied the daily relationship between a white “master” race and a slave population.

The Lost Cause and beyond

When the Civil War abolished slavery, resentful southern whites intensified their desire to reassert control over blacks. This desire tapped into America’s deep-rooted national racism. Hence, the Confederate flag came to embody a decades-long reactionary movement. The Lost Cause, for example, distanced the Confederacy from it origins as a proslavery republic. Instead, the Lost Cause recast the Confederate experiment as an honorable struggle against Federal government “tyranny.”

Consequently, what started as the battle emblem for the southern rebellion gradually transitioned into a more generic symbol of “rebellion” for white people across America who resented losing their white privilege. Long after Appomattox, the Confederate flag played a symbolic role in every flare-up over civil rights, from lynching, to “Massive Resistance,” to the rise of the so-called “Alt-Right.”

Alabama governor George Wallace campaigned with the Confederate flag.

Alabama Governor George Wallace speaking in front of the Confederate flag, October 19, 1964.

The Confederate flag and Trumpism

In October 2018, I spoke with Washington Post reporter, Frances Stead Sellers, about the Confederate flag’s growing acceptance in Trump’s America. “The flag can mean anything you want it to mean,” I noted, “but the history of the flag is very clear and unambiguously connected to white supremacy. That history is undeniable, whether people want to acknowledge it or not.” I saw this history firsthand during a visit to rural Ohio in the summer of 2019.

In a small antique shop in Holmes County, Ohio, there were Confederate battle flags for sale. They were packaged with American flags under the marketing line “fly these colors with pride.” Is there a more appropriate representation of reactionary white American society? America today is a society obsessed with its past. Nonetheless, large elements of this society are unwilling to reckon with, much less even acknowledge, the complexity of that past. It’s much easier to slice the past into a neat and nuance-free “before and after.”

Confederate flag merchandise for sale at a fair in Ohio

Confederate flag merchandise for sale at the Marion County, Ohio fair.

After all, what kind of “pride” does the Confederate flag represent for white people in 21st-century America? Beyond the explicit racists, most people who display the flag don’t have the Civil War on their minds. For them, the flag represents generic concepts like “rebellion,” “independence,” “rural identity,” “states’ rights,” “southernness,” and a general “redneckitude.” These generic feelings, however, are still rooted in grievance. After all, people express pride in things publicly as a means of defending that pride against criticism from others.

A new Lost Cause

Historian Gaines Foster writes that, “fighting to keep the [Confederate] flag flying offers a way for some to express their sense of grievance with an America where non-whites have more power than they did previously.” In other words, those who resent the cultural decline of white America have adopted the Confederate flag as the unofficial emblem of their lost cause.

They see America as white, so they resent non-white people who assert their identity. Moreover, they see America as Christian, so they resent the decline of Christianity in the public square. Similarly, they see America as patriarchal, so they resent Feminism. They also see America as “small-town,” so they resent urbanism. To them, “Real America” gives white Americans the best jobs. As a result, they resent when minorities get better jobs than they do. Finally, these white Americans see America as conservative, so they resent “The Left” and the “Democrat” Party.

Like in mind and like in skin

People who are “like in mind and like in skin,” to quote the great American rock band, the Drive-By Truckers, rally around an America that was “great” once and can be great again. For these folks, issues like race, class, gender, even history itself become crude tools for stoking modern resentments.

Trump supporters with Confederate flag

Trump supporters fly the Confederate flag at a Trump rally in Kissimmee, Florida, 2016.

The people who fly the Confederate flag alongside Old Glory are the same people who think America can be great again. They’re your relatives, neighbors, and co-workers. Moreover, they’ve always been around. They resented the Abolitionists and “negro equality.” They also resented school busing, Affirmative Action, Feminism, Gay Rights, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. They elected Donald Trump because he promised to make their white resentments into white reality. Some openly express white pride.

Donald Trump didn’t create these people. Decades of simmering right-wing propaganda combined with the expansion of minority rights made them feel resentful. Trump just dragged them out of the shadows and rode their resentment into the White House. Red trucker hats and Rebel flags are totems of their free-floating white resentment. They don’t want to preserve history, they want to strip it of all meaning.

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  1. Hi Jarrett. I recently bought your book and am looking at it to answer a question, which is ‘why did a significant number of men fight and die for slavery from 1861-65, when only about 1% of Southern elite really got the benefit’. I found something in the epilogue: “competing arguments have nonetheless become deadlocked into viewing Confederate nationalism as weak or strong. To bypass this deadlock, this book demonstrates how multiple, coexisting loyalty layers influenced Mississippians’ actions in ways that were often unconnected to their nationalist views.” I would like to engage with you a bit on this, and would be willing to pay an honorarium for your time. I couldn’t find your email, and you don’t accept messages on twitter, so I hope this gets to you.

    • Hey Saeed, I too just picked up “The Limits of Loyalty,” and I think I can help you out a bit. I’m a historian of the Antebellum South and Civil War and have devoted years to the subject. Although the majority of Southerners did not own slaves, every white Southerner benefited from slavery, if not economically, then socially. No matter the status or wealth of a freedperson, a white Southerner would always be a step above on the social ladder. This also includes things like legal rights, citizenship, etc… Also, even if a Southerner did not own a slave, there remained the possibility they he could. Imagine the fear for white Southerners when they thought their path toward economic prosperity was being taken from them. Most of us will never be rich, but we can all still aspire to wealth and social standing. Emancipation removed the ability to have those aspirations for many. Lastly, to follow up on the rather rude point made by the other poster, statistics on slaveholding can be highly problematic. Since the census records only included male heads of household as slaveowners, most statistics don’t include their wives, children, or others in the household who directly benefited from the head of house owning slaves. Joseph Glathaars book, Soldiering in the Army of Northern Virginia: A Statistical Portrait of the Troops Who Served under Robert E. Lee, makes this point quite well. The work also shows that a higher proportion of slaveholders were early enlisters in the army and had a higher death rate, making the argument a “rich man’s fight, poor man’s war” specious at best. I hope this helps.

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