Why Do Some Northerners Join the Ku Klux Klan?

This article first appeared on Dorf on Law.

The day after a Klan sympathizer drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, killing one person and injuring nineteen others, I received an email from a friend:

The driver who killed the counter protester in Charlottesville is from Maumee (Ohio). I think there's something extra awful about northerners defending the confederate cause.

This was personal, because I grew up in Maumee, which is a suburb of Toledo, near the northern border with Michigan and only about an hour from Detroit.

I responded that I knew of one guy from my high school class who had joined the KKK, and I thus assumed that there have always been white supremacist groups in that area.

Indeed, there are right-wing extremist groups all over the country, from New York State to Michigan to Montana and beyond. In a way, therefore, there was no reason to be surprised that my home town -- any home town -- could have produced this kind of monster.

As it turned out, the murderer in this case was not really from Maumee. After some quick checking online, I learned that he had grown up in Kentucky and had only moved to Ohio a year ago after his mother took a job there. For no good reason, I exhaled and felt some sense of relief.

Mirroring the second sentence of my friend's email, I also found myself thinking, "Well, Kentucky, I see. That makes more sense."

But does it? Kentucky was not in the confederacy, either, and there are certainly areas of other non-secessionist states (Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania) that were sympathetic to the South. My current home state of Maryland, of course, has its own complicated story.

GettyImages-1319630 A Klansman raises his left arm during a "white power" chant at a Ku Klux Klan rally December 16, 2000 in Skokie, IL. A Wisconsin chapter of the Ku Klux Klan held a "White Pride Rally" on the steps of the Cook County Courthouse located in Skokie, a suburb northwest of Chicago. Tim Boyle/Newsmakers/getty

So my question is whether my friend's strong visceral reaction to northerners who defend the confederate cause -- a negative reaction that I fully share -- makes sense. In order to answer that question, it is necessary to understand where our gut-level reaction comes from.

The most obvious reason to expect that people in northern states would feel differently about the Civil War than those in southern states is that kids in Ohio and similar states grow up being told that "we" were on the winning side.

And not only did we win, but we were fighting for the best cause of all: ending our country's original sin. Finding out that Ohioans -- my people -- had helped end slavery felt good.

Of course, this can be complicated by state-to-state migration, and many families move among states that fought on different sides of the Civil War. Even so, a kid who grows up in the area that won a war will inevitably absorb some sense of group pride. And to repeat, it was not just winning, but winning for the most moral of causes.

I can only imagine what it is like to grow up, even in the late 20th or early 21st century, in a formerly confederate state. Whereas I grew up down the street from an elementary school called Union School, which had a statue of a union soldier on the front lawn, kids in southern states attended any of a number of Stonewall Jackson High Schools and learned about the greatness of Robert E. Lee. (That Lee's supposed greatness is a myth is beside the current point.)

The awfulness of northerners taking pro-confederate positions is thus to a large extent a matter of lacking even the most basic non-ideological excuse: "Well, I grew up here." Without that excuse, it is difficult not to conclude that a guy in upstate New York holding a confederate battle flag out the window as he drives down the highway is a white supremacist.

I suppose that there could be confederate sympathizers in northern states who have come across the bogus argument that the war was not really about slavery, but even then, why should that lead to veneration of the confederacy?

It might be possible for some people to conclude, on a purely intellectual basis, that the federal-state power balance is askew, but there is no reason at all why that would force a person to take the confederate side in a war that was fought in the mid-nineteenth century.

The next question is more difficult and important, however. Even if we admit that northerners who express sympathies for the confederacy are inexplicable, why do we accept the statement that "the kid simply grew up in the south" not just as an explanation but as an excuse?

This question becomes even more difficult to answer when we look at Germany, not just because Germans have so completely rejected Nazi sympathizing (to which I will return momentarily) but because their trauma is much more recent.

All of the Americans who talk about their "southern heritage" being tied up in the need to honor their forebears -- men who, we are repeatedly told, fought bravely on the side that they thought at the time was the right side -- are talking about great-great-great-grandfathers.

Germans are talking about fathers and grandfathers. That should, one might think, give the Germans more of an emotional stake in defending people whom they actually knew and loved.

But the real question is why "what they thought at the time" is the all-purpose excuse. Again, Germans, with the exception of truly fringe groups -- as opposed to the U.S. politicians from a major political party who to this day defend having the stars-and-bars flag fly over southern state capitals -- do not say, "I refuse to repudiate what my parents did, because they were brave and thought they were doing the right thing."

One of the reasons that these questions are so difficult to think through is that pride and shame are such personal experiences. These issues are made even more fraught by people's sense of how they are supposed to honor their ancestors.

I am one of the people who is fortunate enough not to be a part of a family, state, or nation that was on the losing side of the big, defining wars and moral conflicts in human history. (On the other hand, I certainly am aware that "my people" were very much on the wrong side of the extermination of native peoples.)

I am fortunate not to feel a general sense of "group shame," and I do not know what it is like to worry about what a great-uncle did and how that reflects on me.

A friend (not the same friend who wrote the email above) once told me about his feelings when he read a packet of letters that his father had written to his grandfather, shortly after his father had gotten married and moved to a rural town in the Southwest.

The letters were mostly mundane, covering everyday matters about family developments and his father's new job. But one letter caught my friend by surprise.

There, his father had asked his grandfather to be careful about sending money, because "the post office workers here are all Mexicans." He went on to explain that he was therefore worried about the money being stolen.

My friend was shocked, because this was so completely inconsistent with what he knew about his father, who had centrist political views and who had never spoken a bigoted word in his life, as far as my friend knew.

My friend was willing to put his father's words in the context of the time when the letters were written (the late 1940s), but he also believes that his father really did think at the time that Mexicans were inherently more likely to steal. That is a difficult idea to swallow about someone that one loves and honors, but in this case it is also probably true.

What to do next? My friend could have decided that his father was right and that it was important to honor his father's memory by joining groups of people that also believe that Mexicans are dishonest. Instead, he said, "My dad was wrong. I can't change that."

There was, of course, not already a group of people surrounding my friend talking about the heritage within which his father's casual bigotry could be reconstituted as part of a grand cause. Rejecting his father in that limited context did not risk his place in society or undermine his sense of self. He was, for lack of a better term, not worried about peer pressure.

Even so, there are plenty of people who grew up in the American south who have been willing and able to say that their forebears were wrong. When they see bumper stickers with the confederate flag and the words, "Heritage, not Hate," they say, "No, that flag represents a heritage of hate."

They are not willing to say, "Well, the state in which I was born fought for the south, so I'll go to my grave rationalizing something that cannot be excused."

Those people are more courageous than I have ever needed to be. I do not find myself at dinners with friends or at political fundraisers in which I can expect that some people in the room think that the Civil War is properly called "The War of Northern Aggression." The point, however, is that it is no excuse simply to say, "Well, I'm from here."

As a matter of how one feels upon seeing northerners and southerners who defiantly fly confederate flags (and especially those who take violent action because of confederate sympathies), the difference in revulsion probably should not be as great as it has always been for people like me.

There is so much information available, and the moral imperatives are so clear, that the degree of revulsion should be the same no matter who the purveyor of the hatred is, or where he grew up.

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar and a professor of law at George Washington University. He teaches tax law, tax policy, contracts, and law and economics. His research addresses the long-term tax and spending patterns of the federal government, focusing on budget deficits, the national debt, health care costs and Social Security.

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