The Southern cause is, and was, only ever about slavery. And slavery was only ever about greed. Even white supremacy is just a sideshow to that cause—a salve to excuse raw cruelty, abuse, and inhumanity toward fellow humans. Slavery didn’t happen because white men thought themselves superior. It happened because slavery was profitable. The myth of white supremacy was always there, always an excuse to repress and reject; to steal the effort and ideas of people of color. The convenience of that myth was that it justified the worst horrors, and enabled the most profit. And after the war, the Southern cause became just … the cause. America’s cause. Because white Americans decided it was easier to compromise with slavery than eradicate it. Easier, and far more profitable.
After the war, the profit from slavery was ground down fine, spread thin, and applied across the nation in the form of white privilege. Confederate revisionism made that possible, and it accomplished two things. First, it assured that even the lowliest white person would still have someone they could always look down upon. But even more importantly, it ensured the nation that there would always be cheap labor, poorly protected labor, labor whose safety, health, and intrinsic humanity could be disregarded. Black labor.
That settlement with slavery is what’s really memorialized in statues of Confederate figures. They’re not about actual history, they’re about the agreement the nation made to transform that history into something that was worth celebrating, for the purposes of profit. That’s the compromise. That agreement is the reason that Black Americans are dying at such a high rate from COVID-19. It’s the reason that Black Americans are in “essential” roles, but receive negligible pay and benefits. It’s the reason that George Floyd and so many others were treated as disposable men. It’s why American corporations can treat workers in ways that other nations find completely unacceptable, because we made a compromise that said the worst possible thing you can do to people isn’t so bad … as long as there’s money in it.
When Donald Trump champions the preservation of Confederate statues, it has nothing to do with distant events. It has to do with a deal that’s very much still in effect. “The past is not even past,” and never will be so long as that compromise is maintained.