An age-old debate persists as to why the Civil War was fought. Some claim it was over slavery, while others argue it was over state’s rights.
I disagree with the slavery crowd. Most Confederate soldiers were poor white men who couldn’t afford slaves. Why in the hell would they want to take up arms to protect the property of rich plantation owners?
And slaves were competition to white workers. This was one of the more popular appeals made by the Abolition movement. Moral arguments about the cruelty of slavery were not nearly as persuasive to some white folks as was the competition argument.
Slaves worked for free. Therefore, they drove down wages and kept them low for white laborers. So it was in the economic interest of southern whites to end slavery, as this would help drive up wages and improve their employment opportunities.
And yet, white men donned the Confederate uniform and fought to break apart our nation.
So if the preservation of slavery wasn’t their motivation, they had to be fighting for state’s rights. Right?
Well, no, not in my view. After all, who the hell gives a damn about state’s rights? The issue of state’s rights is too wonky for ordinary people to give a shit about. Intellectuals in suits and ties might enjoy verbal jousting over this matter, while slurping down brandies, smoking cigars, and watching the burning embers of a fireplace die out. But I have never observed ordinary, non-political people making a case for state’s rights.
And I’ve never seen anyone pledge their allegiance to my state flag, or to any other. Nor have I ever heard of anyone proclaiming their willingness to lay down their life to protect the sovereignty of their state. It seems to me that nobody gives a flying fuck about their state. Well, except maybe a few Texans.
Who the hell in their right mind would take up arms to protect their state, of all goddamned things? If my state asked me to do this, I’d laugh myself to death. And no way in hell would I serve a cause like that.
So no, I strongly doubt that the Civil War was fought over something as eggheaded and wonkish as state’s rights.
But Confederate soldiers did fight hard and very bravely. Many fell in the battlefield for a cause that maybe they couldn’t quite put their finger on, yet believed in passionately.
My theory is that maybe they were fighting for state’s rights in name only. But in reality, deep in their guts, they were fighting not for state’s rights, but for status rights.
Southern whites during the antebellum days always had one thing going for them. No matter how low their fortunes might become, they could never sink down to the status of black slaves. No matter how piss-poor a white man could be, he could always look over at those slaves picking cotton and say to himself, “At least I’m not as bad off as those poor, miserable fuckers.”
So the thought that the slaves might shed their chains and become equals under the law to whites must have left many whites feeling shook up and irked. They were accustomed to guaranteed socioeconomic status at least one rung above blacks. And they wanted to keep it that way.
Those were the days when men fought duels to the death over insults. Pride and status meant everything, especially to southerners, where it seemed to be ingrained in their culture.
But even today status means a lot to people, and not just to southerners. Status is a basic human need. Your status in your community can help you to be trusted by others. Or distrusted. It can help you to maintain your livelihood. Or it may keep you from being employed. And it can keep you safe from those with vigilante mindsets. Or it can get you beaten to death in a dark parking lot.
People spend thousands of dollars for fancy cars, jewelry, and designer jeans, just to enhance their status. People brag and exaggerate for reasons of status. And sometimes they fight each other viciously and violently when their status is on the line.
Status is damned important to human beings.
When the Civil War ended, the black population of the South immediately rose in status. They could no longer be called slaves. They were no longer cemented to the bottom, as the lowest of the low. In fact, they now had a chance to rise up. Just imagine how insecure white people felt about this.
And so came the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, and other efforts to keep black people under the white people’s heel. The apartheid policies of Jim Crow were all about status. Keep the blacks backwardly educated, in poorly-funded schools. Keep them at the back of the bus. And make them enter public buildings through the back door. Make sure they, and everyone else knows, that their status is always at the back.
In my view, status rights was at the heart of the Civil War, and has also been at the heart of the Civil Rights movement. The racial tensions of the 50s and 60s were all about status. Rosa Parks sat at the front of the bus because she believed her true status was different from that prescribed by law.
The Civil Rights movement helped black people to immensely improve their status in society. And leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr and Barrack Obama have demonstrated the wisdom of accepting black people as equals to whites.
And yet, the black population still suffers from lower socioeconomic status. According to Pacific Standard magazine, “Blacks are nearly three times as likely to be poor as whites, and more than twice as likely to be unemployed. Compared to whites with the same qualifications, blacks remain less likely to be hired and more likely to earn lower wages, to be charged higher prices for consumer goods, to be excluded from housing in white neighborhoods, and to be denied mortgages or steered into the subprime mortgage market.”
It seems that since the heyday of the Civil Rights movement, racial discrimination has become more and more subtle, with carefully engineered deniability. It’s out of sight, yet it still continues. We know, because it’s all right there in the statistics.
So let’s change the debate about race a little. Let’s consider that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery or state’s rights. When boiled down to its essence, I believe it was about status rights. And the race issues we face today, are also about status rights.
Therefore I will never be convinced that racial discrimination has ended, until one thing happens. Black people and white people must enjoy a similar socioeconomic status. Then, and only then, will I believe that Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream has come true.
Because only then will black people have completely overcome.