What do you mean ‘we’, white man?


I suppose you know the old joke from which I chose the headline to this post. The Lone Ranger and Tonto are surrounding by attacking Indians. “It sure looks like we’re done for, Tonto,” says the Lone Ranger. “What do you mean ‘we’, white man?” replies his trusty partner.

I think that the school teacher who assigned the homework questions shown in this report also (innocently, I’d guess) made a “What do you mean ‘we’?” error. Here’s the assignment and the student’s answer.

Immigrant Origins

The journalist reports the questions and answers (and I’ve put the answers in italics):

The answers, tweeted above by the student’s mother, are revealing. Where did your family immigrate from? Africa. When did they immigrate? Whenever the slave owners took them. Why did they immigrate? Because the white man wanted free labor. Who did they immigrate with? Other slaves. Did they know anybody here before they came? No, because they were stolen. What was life like when they first came here to live? Horrible. Do you still have family where they came from? I don’t know. Why is it important to know your family history? So that you know traditions and family values.

I’d say that the teacher’s mental picture of Americans, all of whose ancestors came from somewhere else, doesn’t include black people.

We have the same error of imagination, in my opinion, made by those who defend displaying Confederate symbols or honoring Confederate fighters and politicians, saying it’s just about heritage and honoring “our” ancestors, and it has nothing to do with racism. To whom does “our” refer is my question?

Here in Tampa, just to be specific, it can’t refer to the heritage of all Floridians. Of the 140,000 residents of Florida in 1860, about 80,000 were white people and about 60,000 were black people. Thus, I say that when a person defends the Confederate Soldiers monument in Tampa, and any of the many throughout the South and some northern border states, he or she is only thinking about white people’s heritage. If that defender of the Confederacy were to honor the heritage of all Florida’s residents from 1860, would they put up a monument to white people fighting to maintain black people in slavery?

As I’ve said in other posts, of the 80,000 white Florida residents, about 15,000 fought for the Confederacy. About 5,000 died; about 1,000 in combat and the rest of disease. And several thousand white Florida residents fought for the Union, and about 1000 black slaves who escaped to Union line enlisted in the Union army and fought for their own freedom and that of their still enslaved brothers and sisters. If the white rebel soldiers were brave, so were the white and black Union soldiers.

Why wouldn’t a modern day Floridian who wished to honor the bravery and courage of Floridians of the 1860s include those valiant soldiers, white and black, who fought for the Union? The reason is that the people who put up these monuments and fly confederate flags only picture white people when they imagine “Floridians”.

Put another way, the choice of whom to honor and of what to honor is completely about race.

Often those who chose to honor Confederate veterans (and not Union soldiers) will say that my ancestors were not fighting for slavery. After all most white Southern soldiers didn’t own slaves. They were only fighting to defend their homes against the Northern invaders. While it is true that most Southerns didn’t own slaves, it is not true that they were fighting to defend their homes. Nearly all of Florida’s rebel soldiers fought in the northern parts of the Confederacy, in both the western and eastern theaters of the war. The Union and the Confederacy considered Florida to be a strategic backwater. The Union Navy blockaded Florida’s ports, but there was no invasion of Florida. We should remember that the shooting began with armed attacks against federal installations throughout the South, culminating in the bombardment of Ft. Sumter. Further, the US Army cannot invade the United States, except in the fevered imagination of Jade Helm conspiracy theorists.

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