Historian Jelani Cobb on racism denial: ‘unless you are an actual 2015 slave owner, you don’t qualify as racist’

William Jelani Cobb on Feb. 13, 2013. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
William Jelani Cobb on Feb. 13, 2013. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

A recent CNN/ORC poll  found that the majority of Americans still believe that the Confederate Flag is a symbol of Southern pride and not racism. Among the 1,017 people polled, 57% saw the flag as an expression of pride. Not surprisingly, more white participants, 66% of them, considered the flag to be about Southern pride, while only 17% of the Black participants did. 27% of the white participants and 75% of the Black participants  saw the flag as racist. That’s a pretty big discrepancy. It must be that a lot of Black people are delusional and/ or Highly Sensitive Persons. Or it could be that a lot of white people don’t understand or pretend to not understand racism. I’m going with option two.

Jelani Cobb, a professor of History and the director of the Africana Institute at the University of Connecticut, and a staff writer at The New Yorker, spoke about the distortion of the Confederate Flag, of history, and of the very definition of racism, when he was a guest on my WBAI radio show on Wednesday:

we have engaged in what I called a translucent lie. We know what the symbol [the Confederate Flag] is and we know the circumstances under which the symbol came into existence. When people would say this is heritage, not hate I would always respond by saying what makes you think those two things are mutually exclusive?  Because the racial hatred that we’re talking about is a cornerstone of the heritage that people are trying to avoid or the heritage that people are trying to photoshop. Why does the Confederate flag have the appeal that it has to right wing, white supremacist organizations? If this is in fact about such a benign southern heritage, then why do we see it cropping up in such close proximity to organizations that are avowedly racist.

Cobb’s point about the white supremacist tendencies found among the most avid defenders of the Confederate flag reminded me of Anna and Nathan Robb, the married couple of Branson, MO, who own Dixie Outfitters, which sells confederate souvenirs, T-shirts and memorabilia. Business at Dixie Outfitters is booming now that retailers like Walmart, Amazon, Sears and eBay have stopped selling Confederate flag merch. Anna is adamant that there is nothing racist or hateful about her store’s confederate tchotchkes. (A tchotchke is the Yiddish word for a trinket. Cobb and I decided it was probably not kosher to combine “confederate” and “tchotchke” but let’s file it under subversive.)  Instead, insists Anna, her store is about

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