Austin’s Whites Celebrate the Oppressive “Old South” — Unreflectively

Well, our supposedly “most liberal” city in the South, Austin, Texas, where I once lived for a couple of decades, has again shown its rather racist colors.

Tonight the Austin Symphony Orchestra celebrated its 100th anniversary, and much controversy has arisen over the “Remembering the Old South” theme of the symphony’s fundraiser, an old South ball.

“Show off your southern style as you stroll through the plantation gardens, shop in the gazebos and sip on a mint julep,” the league’s website [says]…. The description of the ball the following evening continued: “This will be an evening of Old South charm and grace, of friends and family, of Moonlight & Magnolias.”

Sylvia Benini, director of the Austin Center for Peace and Justice, pointed out that this theme should call up images of brutal slavery and other plantation oppression on this 150th anniversary of the Civil War. In addition:

Nelson Linder, president of the Austin chapter of the NAACP, pointed out that, this year, a number of events around the country celebrate the Old South. “The Old South was a nightmare,” Linder said. “It was full of racism.”

The symphony executive director, however, defended this dubious white-racially-framed effort:

“The whole deal about the Old South is that it is part of our history.” . . . Corroa … encouraged a dialogue with those who had found the Old South references problematic.

So, now only some Austinites are expected to find this Old South theme problematical, and other Austinites can still continue celebrating in a “fun” way the African American slavery that was extreme, bloody, and brutal– apparently with many not batting an eye?

Lisa Byrd, director of … Austin’s largest African American arts group, was not surprised ….”I personally find it par for the course. In Austin, where [white] people don’t acknowledge a black population and a functioning black culture, it would seem to be OK, wouldn’t it?”

Indeed, and not just in Austin. Once again, the “post-racial” theme so common these days is demonstrated clearly to be false. Notice how even in “liberal white” settings whites still easily defend celebrations of this country’s extreme racist eras, as if that bloody history does not matter now.

They are operating out of a liberal or “soft” version of the old white racist framing of this society, and with little concern for African Americans whose ancestors died young, were often raped, were worked to death, and lived lives under extreme totalitarian conditions.

What is your take on this, and the many other celebrations of the “Old South” we are going to soon see?


  1. marroncito

    I know I am walking into a minefield with this because I am commenting on something that I have no direct experience with. However, I have a question…

    What do we make of heritage?

    I am a male with a Brasilian father and a white mother. I am married to a white woman. I was raised white so my social norms, speech patterns, etc. mark me as white. I have never experienced racism personally because of the brown color of my skin or my mixed ethnic background, so i am very much a partaker of both white and male privilege.

    I can’t pretend to know or understand what it is to experience racism. I do hear the anguished outcry of those that do and believe that listening and discussing can to make the world a better place for everyone.

    Having identified myself, let me come back to my question about heritage. Many races and cultures that have suffered oppression and racism turn to their shared heritage for strength, inspiration and identity. These cultures have suffered terrible forms of oppression and then the next generation rises. They are taught the heritage of their people. In several instances they embrace the strength and identity that their heritage brings, but move beyond the wrongs suffered.

    The specific cultures I am thinking of are:

    * Chinese and Japanese and the horrors the Japanese committed against the Chinese during World War II.
    * East Germans and the West Germans and their reunification.
    * Jews and Germans as well as Jews and Russians after the Holocaust and Pogroms.

    I am not a part of any of these cultures or peoples, but I believe that the rising generations among these people, while embracing their heritage, seek to heal the wounds of the past. I reference these three cultures as a background for a brief look at white culture.

    On the whole, Whites in America do not have a distinctive culture. They can occasionally feel a kinship with European cultures, but on the whole I don’t believe that they draw the same strength and identity from it. One of the clearly defined cultural relics in Whites’ heritage was the culture that was pervasive in the Old South. I believe it holds an appeal to White’s for two reasons. One reason is that it is clearly defined sufficiently to pass through history largely unchanged. White’s celebrate other cultural relics such as the 1960’s & 1970’s but these times were much more short lived and transitory; one cultural fad passing into the next. The second reason the Old South is appealing to Whites is that, for those that were not oppressed by it, the Old South purported to value ideals of chivalry, opulence and refinement; however hypocritically embraced these values turned out to be. Modern Whites romanticize the Old South and its purported virtues the same way many romanticize the Medieval Ages with virtuous knights, courtly love and happily ever after; however barbaric the time may have actually been.

    The rising generation of Whites is not acquainted directly with any of the evils of slavery and its children oppression. Whites at a macro level have renounced racism as a part of their character. This does not excuse Whites being ignorant of white privilege or the pain that is felt in fresh wounds by those that struggle against it.

    I entirely agree that what the Old South symbolises to Blacks and calls to their immediate recollection is the oppression and depravity that was slavery then and its children that are the racism that still oppresses today. I believe that one of the thrusts of your post was to point out that by raising the specters of the Old South they are trampling on the blood of martyrs and identity made holy by their sacrifice, toil and struggle for equality. I agree that Blacks in Austin were hurt.

    Having related the above, I again ask my question. What of heritage? I believe that Whites, as with any culture, should embrace their own culture no matter how dark. In many instances it is this very embracing that directly wounds Blacks by recalling past atrocities and reinforcing norms and stereotypes that feed present day racism and oppression.

    I believe that Blacks and Whites in America are in the same boat that Palestinians and Israelis are in. In their conflict, the Palestinian and Israelis are now so enter-twined that their can be no winner. They are now Siamese twins. If one were to gain the upper-hand so that the other were to pass from history, they too would die. They both claim the same land. The same history. The same culture. They cannot remove the other without wounding themselves. Blacks and Whites are similarly intertwined. Whites cannot hope to celebrate their cultural relics without simultaneously degrading Black history and reinforcing modern racism and oppression.

    I believe that both Blacks and Whites can share and celebrate their heritage if they can find some dialogue, some embrace that allows them to have something greater than the pain. The pain will always be there. It is a shared history. There is no avoiding it.

    My question is when this shared history is celebrated by Blacks or Whites, what can be embraced by the both of them to transition them through the pain as the three previously mentioned cultures are doing?


    Quick Summary:
    * cultures have suffered oppression and then united to transition through the consequences of their shared history
    * blacks and whites in america have the same problem that israelis and palestinians have
    * what can be done that is greater for blacks and whites that will transition them through their own shared history?

    • Joe

      Thanks for the thoughtful analysis, you do raise a number of important issues. The key as I see it is that these celebrations of the “Old South” and the “old Confederacy” almost always cover up the extreme oppression that Blacks suffered during 246 years of slavery, and pretty up the bloody reality of this plantation era. It is one thing to mostly/always operate out of a sanitized white collective memory (which is amazingly sanitized and often a cover up) and yet another to deal with this history openly and critically. If we did discuss and analyze this critically, one of the first things we would do is to make quite clear that the role of the oppressor, esp elite whites, is quite different from the role and situation of those targeted for oppression and exploitation, African Americans. Oppression is not just a “shared history,” but about one group killing, maiming, raping, and exploiting another — and that oppressor group largely ignoring, sanitizing, and papering over its history. In this case, most/many of Austin’s whites are doing the latter. Histories of oppression are not equivalent across oppressor and oppressed groups.

    • Kristen

      I think it’s astute that you point out that, no matter how “heritage” is constructed by still-dominant whites, when it’s intertwined with such an astounding history of oppression, it may be hurtful and damaging to people of color. But, I think there are a lot of ways that American whites could remember their past, only one of which involves *celebrating* the oppression of people of color.

      Jim Loewen pointed out in his books (Lies My Teacher Told Me, and Lies across America) that US whites overwhelmingly emphasize what was “good” about the times of slavery, westward expansion, etc. (in history textbooks, in museum exhibits), even making heroes out of horrifically brutal white individuals. There is little to no recognition of white individuals who worked against white racism, or, like John Brown, are portrayed as literally insane and thus dismissed. As I have seen in my own research and elsewhere, white Americans are to this day very defensive of the history of white oppression; their positive identities rely on an understanding of their past that makes whites necessarily good.

      I think that, for white Americans, “heritage” is not about understanding their culture or their past, it’s about finding a way to maintain a sense of themselves as good. That’s why they ignore and deny and downplay all the things that seem to contradict this notion. And that’s why they do not care to participate in celebrations for Americans of color. They tend to see white history as somehow universal and other Americans’ histories as not relevant to themselves.

      You’re right that whites’ history is necessarily bound up in brutality towards people of color and that peoples’ of color history is bound up in struggling against white oppression. We have an increasingly multiracial society – Personally I will not respect whites’ historical celebrations until they find it valuable to acknowledge this multiracial history, to see their American “heritage” as deeply involved in racial oppression, and to be willing to celebrate those who have fought against this oppression, whether they were white or not.

      As a white American myself, I am not “proud” of my white American ancestors. I think that they were regular people, some with too much power, living in a time of white racism (as am I). I reserve my pride for those who fought for justice. I do not celebrate or yearn for the opulent way of life made possible by racial oppression; in fact I find it disgusting. That whites continue to ignore the connection (symbolic, economic) between the sipping-mint-julep-plantation-way-of-life and the enslavement of human beings tells us so much about our current racial landscape. White Americans have a severe deficit of racial empathy.

    • Seattle in Texas

      marroncito, I just wanted to swing by and say that I appreciated your thoughts above. I don’t know how long you’ve read RR, but I hope you stick around as an active commentor on here.

    • Blaque Swan, previously No1KState

      Personally I will not respect whites’ historical celebrations until they find it valuable to acknowledge this multiracial history, to see their American “heritage” as deeply involved in racial oppression, and to be willing to celebrate those who have fought against this oppression, whether they were white or not.

      I could not have said it better than Kristen did. The problem isn’t acknowledging “heritage”; the problem is the celebration of this heritage.

      Now, there’s something to be said about celebrating a “win,” for lack of better words. But let’s call it what it is, right: whites’ high-fiving each other cause, even though they lost the Civil War, they won the aftermath.

      That’s another thing that just sticks in my craw when it comes to these type celebrations and the rationalizations (“It’s part of our history”): they insult the intelligence of people seeking racial justice. Does the Orchestra really expect us to imagine all this Southern charm and grace of moonlight and magnolias without also imagining the slaves who served the mint juleps, and planted and picked the magnolias? It’s like my brother’s elementary school music teacher who explained to my mom that “Dixie” is just a happy, ole jolly song.

      And whatever happened to the old stand-by, “not all whites owned slaves?” Cause clearly, the only whites who could afford to indulge in moonlight and magnolias and attend symphonies, are also the whites who owned slaves. Eh, duh. You can’t celebrate the Southern white elite as part of your heritage on one hand, and then deny slavery as part of your heritage on the other.

      But to marroncito’s question – I know very little about Chinese and Japanese cultures so I’m going to limit this to Europe. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but Germans acknowledge the atrocity of the Holocaust. It’s illegal to deny the Holocaust took place. Places like Auschwitz are left pretty much as they were, and visitors of these museums get a real sense of the horrors that took place. In contrast, whites in the US deny the facts of slavery’s terror, brutality, and rape. Sites that are used as museums are prettied-up and leave no hint that anything horrific took place. Relics of the Confederacy still remain in state flags, university names and mascots. I could go on, but you get the point. Whites in the US have done the exact opposite of non-Jewish Germans.

      Here’s what needs to be done to help us get to a better place:
      1 – Reparations should be paid, not just for slavery, but for the labor, money, and property that’s been denied, red-lined, sub-primed, or otherwise stolen.
      2 – Whites need to acknowledge the facts.
      3 – Reparations need to be made.
      4 – Whites need to develop or learn how to empathize.
      5 – Reparations must be made.

      And before I forget, here’s another thing that kills me about these types of heritage celebrations. White folks, obviously, have these little shindigs, showing off their Southern charm and whatnot. Meanwhile, they want blacks to get over the past. How can we when whites act like they really do “wish they were in the land of cotton?” I mean, exactly what do they want to come to our minds while they stroll along the plantation? Where and who are black folks in this whole remembrance of the old South? What role do we play?

      What role are they playing?

  2. cordoba blue

    I think what marroncito is trying to do is find a means of healing the racial scars. This is a very complex question. I believe African Americans won’t consider there’s been much healing between whites and blacks until all racism ends. And that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen soon.
    This necessarily leaves us in a societal limbo, if you will. Blacks wait for whites to acknowledge their CURRENT racism, and whites want blacks to believe racism has been extinquished.
    As far as the past goes,there certainly were some pleasant aspects about the Old South. However, those aspects wouldn’t have been possible if not for free labor provided by the slaves. To be a wealthy lord and lady, live in a castle, and celebrate chivalry, there must be slaves behind the scenes making your idyllic life possible.
    I think the greatest hope for a common heritage is the Civil Rights Movement. Many whites had their eyes opened by the civil disobedience of the then invisible black population.

    As far as hope for the future, I see white college students and whites in their 20’s having many more black friends even than people in their 30’s. Just look at Facebook and you’ll see what I mean.Blacks born around 1980 grew up in schools next to white kids and therefore it was natural that the races were much more comfortable together than they were in the 60’s.
    That said, anything that reminds blacks about slavery is understandably painful. A shared heritage that heals? The only era that I can think would work in that regard is the CRM.

  3. John D. Foster

    @cordoba blue: I wish I had your optimism towards young whites being qualitatively different (i.e., in actions as well as mind), but I don’t. As a post on this very site presented just a while ago, whites are least likely to marry blacks than people from other racial groups. The meme of ‘racism dying out with the last generation’ has been around for quite some time now, and I think something happens once whites graduate, get a job, start a family, get older, etc. It is a complex process that has many facets; namely, it is systemic.

  4. cordoba blue

    Whites in the US have done the exact opposite of non-Jewish Germans.

    Say what!! I visited Germany 20 years ago, and I stopped in an antique shop. The lady showed me a case full of old jewelry. Then she holds up this cigarette case with a swastika on it and beams at me..she says, “From World War II”. She was mighty proud of that piece of junk.
    Plus, the friend I was with speaks German. He said he heard men making a Jewish joke in a beer place we stopped in. Several of my friends have had similar experiences visiting Germany. Many Germans still steer clear of Jews. They don’t make it obvious because the UN would would the zillions of people who died during WWII.
    Another incident: some friends had a German exchange student stay at their house..this was about 25 years ago. They told me this girl Knew Nothing about the Holocaust what-so-ever. Please don’t put the Germans on a pedestle. Jewish people who’ve had loved ones die in the Holocaust don’t, so why would you?
    Say what you will about American racism, but it severely bothers me when you hold Germany up as a standard Swan. Have you ever been to Europe by the way?

  5. cordoba blue

    By the talk about ethnocentric. Have you ever heard a German brag about his “heritage”? “Germans are excellent engineers, Germans are very clean, Germans have mathematical minds, Germans have contributed so much to classical music, Germans have superior problem solving skills….” Many of them would have made great propaganda copy writers for you-know-who.

  6. cordoba blue

    Anti-Semitism is Alive and Well in Germany Today. Please read. An excerpt from the article link below.

    “As a psychologist, I think that this reflects ambivalent attitudes,” wrote Beate Küpper, one of the researchers who produced the report, in an e-mail to the Forward. “Germans are happy if there are some Jews in their country as this gives us release. It shows off that we are tolerant…. However, the strong blaming of Israel common in Germany (because we like peace and go for the weaker…) is full of anti-Semitic stereotypes [and] associations.”

    She summarized: “When it comes to anti-Semitism I strongly believe that the old myths are still around, even though they are usually not awakened in their traditional forms today… [It’s] definitely less than some 60 years ago, but it is still around.”

  7. cordoba blue

    Many Germans attack Israel instead of Jewish people. To attack a state as a political statement is a means of being anti-Semitic under the guise of “nothing’s just politics.”

    According to Lars Rensmann, an expert on anti-Semitism from Germany who teaches political science at the University of Michigan, for reasons peculiar to his native country, hatred of Jews may lurk below the surface even at protests that stop short of overt anti-Semitism.

    “It’s not so legitimate to attack Jews in Germany, so you attack Israel as a state — the collective Jew that represents the memory of the Holocaust,” Rensmann said. “This helps you understand Germans who say what the Jews are doing to the Palestinians is just as bad as what the Nazis did to the Jews.”

  8. Blaque Swan, previously No1KState

    blue – Leave me alone!

    Unless and until you can address the words as I’ve written them, all the words I write in the order I write please, DO NOT ADDRESS ME. Seriously.

  9. Maria

    Blaque Swan, you state, “Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but Germans acknowledge the atrocity of the Holocaust.” Yes, the post-WWII generation certainly has. Does this mean there are Germans who are still anti-semetic. Of course. But according to my German colleague in his early 30s, he says the difference he has observed in his time in America since graduate school is that while Germans have been dealing with what they did to the Jews, white Americans have not been forced in any significant way to deal with what they have done to people of color. This makes all the difference. It is why I can’t stand to hear arguments that the confederate flag is about cultural heritage or see the California bear flag without thinking of all the suffering for people of color that it represents. Are Germans beyond their racism and anti-semitism? No. But unlike Americans they have been made to confront an ugly reality of their history. Thank you for pointing this out. If the southern celebration had taken this into account it would be much more inclusive and authentic.

    • Blaque Swan, previously No1KState

      Thank you for pointing this out.

      No, thank you.

      PS – The California bear, too? . . . I just looked up the history of Cali’s flag. Trust and believe from now on whenever I see it, I’ll be thinking of the suffering it represents, too. (Ironic now, that some were angered by the sight of the Mexican flag at the immigrant rights protests of 2006.) I just learned in early March that the “blue bonnet” of NC and Texas’s state flags means the same as the Confederate ‘X.’


      • Joe

        Thanks, Blaque Swan and Maria. These issues of racist symbolism are central to the way blatant racism stays very much alive, with a very thin veneer of not being racist to those folks of all backgrounds who do not know the symbols are racist. For example, it is very important to know that what is called the “Confederate flag” is actually not the main flag of the Confederacy, but rather the Confederate battle flag. And that flag was seldom seen in the 20th century until white supremacists dug it up and used it in their protests against racial desegregation in the South, and then later everywhere. It is of course a very potent symbol of white supremacy today, as all but a few naive folks really do know. And the pain it causes is huge, and that is part of the reason some whites use it, and use it aggressively.

        • Blaque Swan, previously No1KState

          . . . and that is part of the reason some whites use it, and use it aggressively.

          Thanks for the confirmation. I had gotten so accustomed to the “heritage not history” defense, I forgot some people use it because they wish the past were present.

    • Blaque Swan, previously No1KState

      Just remembered another symbol of pride to Usonians who know no better and desecration to those who do – Mount Rushmore is built in the Black Hills, sacred land of the Lakota Souix.

  10. cordoba blue

    I was at the Barnes and Noble bookstore today and saw this slim paperback. It was entitled “How to Make a Slave”. It was supposed to have been a speech delivered by Willie Lynch on the bank of the James River in the colony of Virginia in 1712. Lynch was a British slave owner in the West Indies. He was invited to the colony of Virginia in 1712 to teach his methods to slave owners there. The term “lynching” is derived
    from his last name.
    I looked this book up on the net when I got home, and some commentators are claiming it is not authentic. I am wondering if someone could help me on this. Nobody wants to read this. It is too sickening. This guy outlines in detail how to psychologically break slaves as if you were breaking an untamed animal. If it’s not actually authentic, in fact it could be.
    This fits under the category of slave days. That’s why I’m posting it here. Plus, actually, I’m a little in shock at the brutality of this guy’s “suggestions”. If anyone had any doubts about the horrific conditions slaves were subjected to, this “advice” on how to de-humanize human beings will certainly stop you in your tracks.

  11. cordoba blue

    PS. When I said “Nobody wants to read this”, I did not mean nobody should have to read this. I meant, take my advice and spare yourself the agony, unless you have the stomach for it. It’s absolutely barbaric. Although,,,, maybe uninformed white people who claim slavery wasn’t “all that bad”
    SHOULD be subjected to this thing.So much for applauding life on the old plantations.

  12. ThirtyNine4Ever

    Well what’s next, an Austin minstrel show? This is just another of the many ways that white racist southerners continue to idealize and glorify the antebellum south. I don’t know if I should be surprised or not. It may have a reputation for being liberal but Austin is still in Texas after all. and also, Cordoba, are you just arguing for the sake of arguing?

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