Heritage, Not Hate: American Exceptionalism in the Context of Genocide

Not every neo-Confederate endorses Nazism. Some overtly do, like the League of the South – an alt-right hate group which wants to turn the Southern states into a shiny white paradise, and has allied itself with neo-Nazi movements in order to accomplish this purpose. Here is a list of quotes by LotS founders and members, whose rants about “organised Jewry” would not be out of place in Der Stürmer.

But there’s also a large – perhaps larger – group of Americans who insist that they are not racist, even as they proudly drape the Confederate flag from their windows and car bumpers. The Southern Poverty Law Center has put out detailed reports on this phenomenon before, describing how groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy hide behind a veneer of gentility and ‘heritage’ in order to promote false Lost Cause narratives about the war.

But here I want to focus on one particular question which strikes me: why do many Americans denounce Nazism while embracing the memories and causes of their Confederate ancestors? What makes the Confederates’ anti-Black genocide more palatable, more defensible, to them than the Nazis’ genocide of the Jewish people? Nikki Haley, for example, was “deeply disturbed” by Trump’s post-Charlottesville remarks called neo-Nazis “good people” – and yet she has been known to defend the Confederate flag’s presence in public life. Shelby Foote, a man I love to hate (with good reason) was anti-Nazi in a very literal sense: he enlisted in the Mississippi Guard after Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland. And yet he has no qualms hero-worshipping his great-grandfather, a slaveowning Confederate planter.

All this is because there is still a strong current of American exceptionalism which runs through our culture: the idea that we are unique in world history, that ultimately we are on the side of good in everything we do. Many people feel comfortable waving the Confederate flag alongside the American one because in their eyes, their Confederate ancestors were Americans who challenged the system. And Americans, supposedly, can do no wrong. The Confederates were nothing like Nazis. Sure, both groups carried entrenched hatred for people they perceived as belonging to a different, “inferior” race. Sure, both groups enslaved, tortured, and murdered people (warning, the second link has graphic descriptions and made me physically retch when I read part of it). But the Confederates were, essentially, Americans, and ancestors of Americans – therefore, something must have differentiated them! Something must have made them better, inherently, than Nazis. They couldn’t have been privy to a genocide, because they were American.

We are taught that we are a land built on freedom and equality, principles which are baked into our very Constitution. Except that we really aren’t: we were built as a land of freedom for white people, especially cisgender white men. There is no better proof than the twin genocides, of Black people and of Indigenous people, from which US society is carved.

“Heritage, not hate” is a lie built on another lie: namely, that the Confederacy stood for anything but a desire to continue committing genocide against a large segment of Americans. Descendants of the 12 million Black people whose sovereignty was annihilated through the slave trade deserve better than being made to live amongst a sea of memorials dedicated to homegrown American fascists.

––Aditi Ramaswamy

Software engineer; emerging author; almost certainly not a changeling. I write about the uncomfortable parts of Indian & American history & culture.

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