Op-Ed

Wendell Berry dismisses inherent racism in Confederate statues

Scott White is a Lexington attorney.
Scott White is a Lexington attorney.

The prophetic voice of Wendell Berry, often lonely and emanating from the wilderness, is always worth hearing. His courage on topics as diverse as mountaintop mining and land use calls us to think and, even in some instances, to act.

Many folks, as do I, agree with his view that the word "Obama" is, sadly, a barely disguised coded racist term, as used by many Southern Republicans — like "states rights" or standing up for a mythologized Southern "tradition" have long been used.

Claims that President Barack Obama is a serial lawbreaker from Chicago, a socialist, a radical Islamist, the anti-Christ, or a class warrior either ignore reality or demonize mainstream political policies.

As the secular president of a country whose economy is, as Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz terms "ersatz capitalism," Obama often seeks policies that are welcomed by the icons of corporate America while neglecting policies that will have a true impact on economic inequality. His administration's steering of us from a certain depression — in which Wall Street was both saved and given a pass on criminal violations — is simply ignored or denied.

Or, how his character is cast in terms of bigoted religiosity when he approaches issues like institutionalized racism, or mediates the working poor's plight with the first ever health-care reform, or dares seek peace in the Middle East with an approach to avoid our country being marginalized, or chooses the rational path on environmental policy which relies upon scientific opinion instead of fantasy, or seeks to enact responsible gun regulation which has been monopolized by the National Rifle Association.

Berry's main theme is, to use the language of the evangelical Republicans, "righteous in its truth." His courage to risk derision from fellow citizens as some liberal crank is plain.

Even so, I depart from him on two points:

The reality is that pushing the race button here has forced candidates to deal with those Republican candidates who, in fact, are running against Obama and not the Democratic candidate's ideas and policy proposals.

We saw it in Chandler-Barr, Grimes-McConnell, and now Bevin-Conway as well as a plethora of small local or legislative elections in which federal powers are meaningless.

Is it disingenuous accommodation when Democratic candidates are forced to deal with this campaign? Perhaps, but is it not a realpolitik necessitated by a party that willingly plays the race card — albeit in a clumsy, transparent attempt — to be subtle?

Space limitations may have prevented Berry from fully articulating his argument on the long-delayed movement to dispatch the iconography of the Confederacy to museums instead of public squares and government buildings.

Simply put: Berry is dead wrong. This is not tantamount to "burying" history. Rather, it is a corrective to the false portrayal of the war and a legacy of violent disenfranchisement of an entire race of fellow citizens camouflaged by the lie of "separate but equal."

The continued use of Confederate icons in and on government buildings is to tacitly promote those lies that the "cause" was noble.

I urge Berry to re-think this position. For as it stands, it is no more than ammunition for those, including the state historical commission (wich has nary an African-American member), to declare these symbols of evil "historical lessons," which demean not just African-Americans but all Kentuckians.

Like his point that "Obama" has wrongly and disingenuously been appropriated as coded hate-speech, we should make no mistake that so, too, does Confederate imagery in public spaces clumsily seek to hide its inherent racist underpinning.

  Comments