The Civil War That Still Goes On

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I can easily trace my family line back to the Civil War.  I imagine a lot of people can, and I'm sure that there are more than a few whose lives were altered by that conflict. It was slavery that brought my mother's family to the U.S, it was slavery that produced my great-grandmother, a product of a slave named Anne and her Scotch-Irish owner. It was slavery that was at the heart of the rift that caused the Civil War. It was the Civil War that gave Anne her freedom, and allowed her daughter to get an education.

Most Americans have an ancestor that fought on one side of the war or the other. Maybe you had a great-great-great grandfather who fought against "Northern aggression," or a far removed aunt who nursed the boys in blue at an army hospital. Maybe both. The branches of my family tree include both slaves and owners, both the blue and the grey. In 1861, it was brother against brother; in 2011, it's an internal war against ourselves.

But were it only an identity crisis that we could handle and set aside privately, we wouldn't still be fighting over whether or not to fly the confederate flag, I wouldn't get called a Yankee when I travel South (despite the fact that I was born in California), and the South wouldn't be stereotyped as racist (though I encountered more open racism in Detroit than in Atlanta).  

We are still fighting the Civil War. Want proof? Go on Twitter, or buy a billboard, or an ad in The New York Times and print the following statement:"The Civil War was about owning slaves. And that war was lost." You will find people willing to argue not only the first point, which is predictable, but the second point as well. I agree with historian William Boone; our inability to talk openly about these subjects seems to prevent us from solving the underlying tensions that the war left behind.

I offer one more example of this: the fact that many people in the U.S. don't acknowledge that racism, prejudice and racial disparities exist, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Some established facts — African Americans are imprisoned at least eight times as often as European Americans, while American Indians and Hispanics are imprisoned at two to three times the European American rate. (Asian American incarceration rates are generally lower than European American rates.) About a third of African American men are under the supervision of the criminal justice system, and about 12 percent of African American men in their 20s and 30s are incarcerated. In health care, according to a study from the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, blacks were significantly less likely to receive certain treatments, like angioplasties, than whites and "African American patients received a lower quality of care than white patients."

Why can't we honestly acknowledge that there are racial disparities and thereby address them? The reason is, we are still fighting, and no one wants to give ground in an argument. It began in the 1800's when the Southern states tried to justify secession using several political arguments in addition to slavery. But slavery was at the heart of the Civil War. Yes, there were economic reasons — mostly because the Southern economy was dependent on the system of slave labor. There were issues about states' rights, mostly because Southern states didn't think anyone else should tell them if they could own slaves or not.

It seems odd to try and pretend that the Civil War was not about slavery. Surely we can agree that slavery was the major cause, if not the only one. Why can't we agree? Again, if the fighting never really ended, it would explain why both sides want to capture the high ground.

If I could, I would sit down with every single person in the nation and try to negotiate a ceasefire in our ongoing civil war. The War Between the States was a turning point in our history. If only we could celebrate its anniversary by leaving it in the history books.