I started to write this in the comments, but it became too long for the main page. I suppose I should myself apologize for singling out a commenter, but it's not like we get them every day here -- we tend to become a little overexcited. Anyway, one of you anonymouses (anonymice?) said something that deserves further discussion about the Senate's too little, way too late apology for not doing more to stop lynching back in the day:
 

Can we please put this in the "who gives a crap" department? I mean, please. Aren't there bigger things Congress could be apologizing for? The Iraq war, for example?

Well, yes, it's too bad senators were distracted from the serious business of apologizing for the Iraq war (which, as everybody knows, they were just about to do) by some sudden, inexplicable antiquarian mania. Seriously, though, I take it that what's really being argued here is that lynching is historical (and over, done with), and that progressives need to press their arguments on contemporary issues, not waste time refighting old battles.

Official apologies can seem simpering and hypocritical, a painless and risk-free way to denounce sin or parade virtue without actually having to pay for it. Note that this is merely a resolution, not a spending bill; nobody's talking about reparations, for example. Official apologies can be self-serving: in some minds, loudly declaring that slavery was evil 140 years after its abolition serves as inoculation against charges of racism now.

Consider George Allen, about whom The Virginian-Pilot writes:

For Allen, the apology also may have been another chance to shed the faintly redneck image of his past. The freshman senator's early career in politics in the 1970s was marked by controversies over his display of a hangman's noose outside his Charlottesville law office - a symbol of his tough stance against violent crime, he has said - and the placement of a Confederate flag near his desk.

Allen also angered civil rights groups when, as governor in the early 1990s, he issued annual proclamations for Confederate History Month observances in the state.

"He's got a record that's going to cause him great problems with African-Americans in 2008," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato. Allen's support for the apology fits with other steps the senator has taken since moving to the Senate to address perceived weaknesses in his record, Sabato argued.

Allen's case makes you wonder why the resolution wasn't cosponsored by the whole Senate. Apology is easy in this age of conservative cooptation of civil rights leaders and rhetoric; it's all the more noteworthy, then, when someone balks, when the Senate has to perform procedural gyrations to avoid forcing certain people to go on record as saying that lynching was bad. It's really Klanlike, isn't it, this shadowy aggression wherein a mysterious group of senators makes it known they don't like the resolution, while refusing to stand up and say so publicly?



The fact that such semi-secret resentments (or fears) still swirl around the historical subject of lynching tells us much about Southern politics in the 21st century. You can't really segregate the (trivial, over-and-done-with, merely symbolic) past from the (trenchant, relevant, important) present, especially (but not only) in the South. Insert your favorite Faulknerian quip about the South and history here. Often arguments over history are metaphors for present-day struggles (see the Confederate battle flag), which themselves grew out of and are continuous with the historical conflicts that we now think of as "cultural" or "identity" issues.

Lynching, after all, is not exactly dead, with the killing of James Byrd only seven years old, with the death of Emmett Till and other civil-rights-era murders still in the headlines. Moreover, the Iraq war itself is hardly an issue insulated from American racial history: itself a racial war in some ways (justified in many quarters as an attack on "the Arab/Muslim world" in response to 9/11), the invasion of Iraq has also been used to try to claim that racism back home is over (look at all those black soldiers! Look at that Latino general!). The war has fortified the "America is never wrong" crowd, the same mad patriots who are the first to downplay any injustice here by making insipid comparisons to Saddam Hussein (or Hitler, or Stalin, or whomever).

In other words: if the state of white Southern political culture is such that you can't get a Southern congressman to make a public stand that lynching was a bad thing, you're certainly not going to get Congress to apologize for the Iraq war (I doubt even our new hero Walter Jones would go along with that). Frankly, any white Southern solidarity that feeds on racial resentment and self-serving Gone With the Wind, Birth of a Nation myths about carpetbaggers, black rapists, and the righteousness of lynch mobs is nothing but a roadblock to meaningful social change.

What needs to happen is not for liberals and progressives to try to pander to this kind of Southern white identity by (for example) using evangelical religious talk, commissioning bluegrass theme songs, and sponsoring NASCAR trucks (though none of those are bad, in and of themselves). What's needed is an expansion in the understanding of Southernness, a recognition by everybody, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, that there are many paths to being Southern that do not pass through the old Confederacy, and many ways of being Southern that do not depend on upholding the honor of Jim Crow.

EDIT 4:30 PM: redid intro slightly.