Roots of white rage: America’s clash of class and race, from the Civil War to the rise of Trump

Roots of white rage: America’s clash of class and race, from the Civil War to the rise of Trump.

Salon talks to Keri Leigh Merritt, author of “Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South”


liberals, progressives and other dreamers who want a true democracy in America often lament how race and the color line have interfered with and too often made stillborn a unified struggle that advances the collective interests of all poor and working-class people in America, and around the world. At present this takes the form of how Bernie Sanders and other liberals bemoan how “identity politics” have become too prominent on the left and among the Democratic Party. Of course this formulation is imprecise and myopic: all politics is identity politics; it is only when black and brown people as well as gays, lesbians, women, and other marginalized groups organize for their full and equal rights that somehow “politics” needs a modifier which diminishes the legitimacy of a given claim on rights and justice.

And there are other obvious complications as well. From at least before the founding through to the present those Americans who are considered “white” have consistently chosen the psychological wages of whiteness over working with black and brown people to advance shared material interests.

In the United States, this riddle often focuses on why poor whites in the South and elsewhere chose to fight for the Southern slaveocracy and the treasonous Confederate States of America when as a group they were not made wealthy by the trade, abuse, and murder of black human property.

Why did poor whites not ally with black slaves and black free people to bring down a system of racial tyranny that was also a means for the slave-owning plantation-industrial class to wield great power over whites of the lower classes? How did the lives of poor whites differ from those of poor blacks, both free and enslaved? What of the perversely distorted view of American chattel slavery where somehow it was “poor whites” who had it “worse” than black human property? How can this fiction be exposed? What type of political work do myths about the South and the Civil War do in a moment of resurgent white backlash and white supremacy under Donald Trump and the Republican Party?

In an effort to answer these questions I spoke with Keri Leigh Merritt. She is a historian and author of the widely-praised and provocative book “Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South.

You are a historian whose scholarship focuses on the American South, culture, and the world made by white on black chattel slavery. You are also a Southerner. There is the oft-cited quote that, “To understand the South, you have to understand that they’re the only part of the country that lost a war.”

What does “Southern pride” mean in a moment of white rage, when the Republican Party has embraced neo-Confederatism and all the poison that comes with it?

When people are usually talking about Southerners, they’re talking about white Southerners. So I want to make that distinction because there is an incredible lack of willingness by white Americans, and particularly white Southerners, of dealing with the sins of our forefathers. It is holding us back a great deal. We must confront what our ancestors did. The tendency to cling to Confederate statues and the whole Confederate myth has stemmed I believe largely from sheer ignorance. Most people don’t know when and how these statues were erected, and most people do not know under what circumstances their ancestor may or may not have fought in the Civil War. Were they forced? Compelled? Did they do it to just earn a wage?

And being thought of in terms of being those Americans who lost the war does put a chip on the shoulder of white Southerners. Therefore they cling to false narratives of the Confederacy.

A huge question, but one that is central to your new book: In America how do race and class intertwine?

Well, it’s a very complicated relationship depending on place and time, and how different groups of people negotiate competing interests. But during times of great economic upheaval, there’s always a chance, a glimmer of hope for working-class people and poor people to band together across lines of race. At times they do start doing that and then there’s always a big backlash.

In those moments there is despair and want, but also the kinship between people across the color line to achieve something on behalf of working people.
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