Doug Wilson: Black and Tan

Doug Wilson: Black and Tan July 9, 2015

In our last post, we dealt with Doug Wilson’s 1996 work, Southern Slavery As It Was. Today we turn to his 2005 book, Black and Tan, in which Wilson restated and defended the argument his earlier argument. Wilson wrote Black and Tan after being forced to pull Southern Slavery As It Was from publication because of serious plagiarism issues (which should tell you something about him as a scholar). I’ve seen people suggest that Black and Tan was simply a slightly revised republishing of Southern Slavery As It Was, but this is misleading. The book deals with the same themes, but it is also longer and deals less with the everyday aspects of slave life.

Black and Tan is not a retreat from Southern Slavery As It Was. Throughout Black and Tan Wilson speaks of his critics misunderstanding his “words, actions, and intentions” in Southern Slavery As It Was. He speaks of “unsympathetic” critics who go around “snatching at words and highlighting inflammatory quotations.” He does not apologize for or take back anything he wrote in Southern Slavery As It Was. Indeed, in several respects Wilson goes farther than he went in Southern Slavery As It Was, making comments and assertions that are blatantly racist.

First let me offer you a quick overview of the points to be covered:

  • People Misread Southern Slavery As It Was
  • Wilson Is a Paleo-Confederate, Not a Neo-Confederate
  • Racial Hatred Goes Both Ways
  • Pagan African Was Worse Than Southern Slavery
  • The State of Antebellum Slavery Was Not Evil
  • The Civil War Led to All Manner of Evils
  • African Americans Were Better Off under Slavery Than They Are Today
  • Black Culture Was Inferior
  • The South Was Christian (and Less Racist Than the North)
  • The South Was Right (and Robert E. Lee was a Christian Gentleman)
  • The Civil War Was an Enemy of the Christian Faith
  • The American South Was the Last Nation of the First Christendom

And now let’s get started!

People Misread Southern Slavery As It Was

In Black and Tan, Wilson discusses the controversy over Southern Slavery as it Was:

In the fall of 2003, a controversy erupted in the small town where I live in northern Idaho. The controversy concerned a booklet I co-wrote with Steve Wilkins in the mid-nineties entitled Southern Slavery as It Was. It was the contention of this booklet that the way in which slavery ended has had ongoing deleterious consequences for modern Christians in our current culture wars, and that slavery was far more benign in practice than it was made to appear in the literature of the abolitionists. We were not trying to maintain that slavery in itself was a positive good, like food, air, or sunlight. Our central interest was in defending the integrity and applicability of the Scriptures to our current cultural controversies, and we affirmed that Christians who apologize for what the Bible teaches on slavery will soon be apologizing for what it teaches on marriage. We wrote as Christian apologists, but not the kind who apologize for being Christians. (p. 14)

Note the middle bit there—Wilson says the central argument in Southern Slavery As It Was is that the Civil War was a serious mistake, and that slavery was more benign than often claimed. He’s not walking these things back. He states that he was not trying to make slavery out to be a positive good, and it’s true that he did speak of certain evils of slavery, but in arguing that the antebellum South was the most racially harmonious society it’s hard to see how he could be surprised that some people came away with the idea that it was a positive good.

Wilson also makes it clear that he will not apologize for what the Bible says about slavery because, he believes, that will lead to an acceptance of marriage equality through a questioning of the Bible’s words on marriage. In other words, Wilson is motivated by a desire to affirm and justify what the Bible says about slavery in both the Old Testament (where it lays out rules for its existence) and the New Testament (where slaves are commanded to obey their masters and slave owners to treat their slaves kindly).

Our particular controversy arose because the local newspaper erroneously reported that we were holding a conference on the subject of slavery, and it was not long before many of the local leftists were screeching like so many progressive tea kettles. In the course of the ensuing controversy, I found myself accused of many amazing things, a number of which were as fully immoral as a decision by the United States Supreme Court. Naturally, I felt I needed to defend myself. Some accusations were slanderous, some were confused, and some were just half a bubble off. (pp. 14-15)

Wilson believes that he was falsely accused of racism during the 2003 controversy over Southern Slavery As It Was. He is incensed—incensed I tell you!—that anyone would dare think him a racist. And it’s true that Wilson did condemn racism in Southern Slavery As It Was. He also, of course, wrote that owning slaves is compatible with Christianity, that condemning the owning of slaves is anti-Christian, that the abolitionists were the bad guys, and that the antebellum South was a time of unheard of racial harmony.

But don’t worry, Wilson is about to outdo himself, because if anything, Black and Tan is more blatantly racist than Southern Slavery As It Was. Methinks Wilson doesn’t know what racism is.

Wilson Is a Paleo-Confederate, Not a Neo-Confederate

In this last category [of accusations] was the accusation that I am a neo-Confederate. This is close in one way, but at the same time it is not at all accurate. The tag neo-Confederate conjures up images of a handful of disillusioned yahoos setting up a tiny republic in a trailer park east of Houston somewhere. But it must be admitted that a more accurate name would require explanation as well. This is because I am not a neo-Confederate; I am a paleo-Confederate.  (p. 15)

Wilson wants you to know he’s not a neo-Confederate! He’s a paleo-Confederate, which is totally different! Wait, what exactly is a paleo-Confederate? Because yes, Wilson really did just make that term up. Wilson explains what it means in an interview here:

Paleo-confederate was a phrase that I used or appropriated to distinguish myself from neo-Cofnederate. A neo-Confederate, in the common parlance, is someone who is still fighting the war . . . and by the war I mean the late unpleasantness, the war of 1861 to 1865. . . . So neo-Confederates want a do-over at Gettysburg, they want to continue the same fight, and politically they can’t continue the same flight, history matters, we’re downstream from that point. So I use the term paleo-Confederate to not surrender the principals that were involved in that fight while recognizing that defending those principals in a modern context is going to look different, the terrain has changed, the circumstances have changed. . . . a paleo-confederate . . . says, look, the South had a point on the constitutional matters surrounding the war, the Constitution meant something, and historically something shifted in American polity as a result of that war. . . . A paleo-Confederate says look, I think that Lincoln was a centralizer, I think that the postwar amendments to the Constitution inverted the meaning of the Constitution. Before the war the Constitution placed restrictions on the power of the federal government, after the war those amendments became means by which the federal government suppressed the power of the state.

In other words, a paleo-Confederate is someone who believes the South had the right of things and wants to continue that battle in the present, but acknowledges that the terrain has changed and the fight will look different. Note that Wilson insists that it is all about the Constitution and states’ rights. He elsewhere has written that he’s not talking about restoring slavery or anything like that when he calls himself a paleo-Confederate. But the truth is, the entire point of the Confederacy was to preserve slavery. The Confederacy gave states less rights than they’d had under the Union, and maintained more federal control. It wasn’t about states’ rights at all, it was about slavery. Wilson is flat wrong.

And besides, if what he’s really about is states’ rights and a decrease of federal power, can’t he use a label that means that without using the term “Confederate”? Can’t he see that that label is and always will be a problem, no matter what he prefaces it with?

You see my difficulty. The problem with such a phrase is not what it actually means. The problem is that it is the kind of phrase that semi-literate journalists think they understand. (p. 15)

Then drop the freaking phrase, Wilson. You cannot take a label that means one thing and use it for yourself but say it means something different and then get upset when journalists and other readers assume the label means what it actually means. It does not work that way!

Racial Hatred Goes Both Ways

There has been a great deal of hypocrisy and faithlessness in our racial history— and the traffic has gone both ways. Hatred and bitterness has played a major role for many on both sides. (p. ix)

The argument that blacks are racist too and that they need to repent and beg forgiveness for their hatred of whites is endemic to Wilson’s writing. In Southern Slavery As It Was Wilson wrote that slavery had created a “slave mentality” in African Americans that continues to this day, and he will hit on this theme again later, and here he argues in fact that African Americans are just as guilty of racial hatred as white people. The picture he paints is not a pretty one.

There’s also this quote later in the book:

None of us is clean in himself. So do whites need to seek and receive forgiveness for their treatment of the black man? Absolutely. But blacks also need the cleansing blood of Christ—some of it for treatment of fellow blacks, some for responding to white hatred with hatred, some of it for taking mistreatment of a great-grandfather as a license for crime, and so on. We are, all of us, sinners. And it is not fitting for a sinner to look sideways at someone else and say, ‘Well, I’m less of a sinner than you’ (pp. 29-30).

The focus, as you can see, is on the sins of African Americans, which include racial hatred and using slavery to excuse crime. Here again is this idea that racial reconciliation is about both sides admitting that they did wrong, and not about white Americans repenting of centuries of racial hatred and prejudice. This is not some sort of equal opportunity offender thing, but Wilson thinks it is.

In addition, Wilson is missing something many southern apologists miss. It’s not as though injustice against African Americans ended with the end of slavery. The Civil War was followed by a century of Jim Crow. During Jim Crow, African Americans lived in a system of pervasive discrimination and fear. And it wasn’t just the things we typically think of, either. At mid-century, national housing policy was set up in such a way as to severely disadvantage African Americans. And it’s not like racism or structural disadvantages are a think of the past, either, as anyone keeping their ears open for the last few years knows quite well. The War on Drugs has done endless harm to black communities, and the prison industrial complex borders on the creation of a new slavery. African Americans today are not spuriously angry over past wrongs done to a distant ancestor (not that such anger would be spurious anyway), they are angry over present wrongs done to their communities in the here and now.

And no, these wrongs do not go both ways.

Pagan African Was Worse Than Southern Slavery

And as for those first slaves: their descendants, while still sometimes held down by their own sins and residual paganism, not to mention the sins of others against them, have been blessed by being part of this culture. This is why a secular approach to racial reconciliation will always be doomed.  Throughout our history, God has brought many blessings to the blacks as well, at the center of which was access to the gospel. The tragedy of pagan Africa was more significant than the tragedy of southern slavery. (p. ix)

Yes, that’s right, Wilson wrote that pagan Africa was worse for black than southern slavery. He also writes that African Americans today have been “blessed by being part of this culture,” a blessing that came from slavery and was orchestrated by God.

The State of Antebellum Slavery Was Not Evil

If we want to understand the culture wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we must come to grips with the culture wars of the nineteenth century. In order to do this, it is necessary to get clear on the nature of American slavery, which was not what its abolitionist opponents claimed for it. If it had been, it is hard to see how the biblical instructions could have been applicable—for example, I would not cite 1 Timothy 6:1–4 to a person trying to escape from a Nazi death camp. “Obey the existing authorities!” But if antebellum slavery was the normal kind of sinful situation that Christians have had to deal with regularly down through history (e.g., one comparable to what Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus had to address), then the instructions in 1Timothy 6 make perfect sense.We need to learn that the antebellum situation was one of Normal Sin, not one of Apocalyptic Evil. (p. 4)

This is, once again, in line with what Wilson wrote in Southern Slavery As It Was. He admits that there was sin there—cases where antebellum slave owners did not obey Biblical prescriptions to treat their slaves kindly, and of course the fact that antebellum slave codes were not in line with Old Testament laws regarding slavery. But of course he must reiterate that abuses were rare, abolitionists were lying liars who lied, and the situation was one of “Normal Sin” and not “Apocalyptic Evil.” And because it wasn’t evil, Wilson would have urged antebellum slaves to obey their masters rather than to escape.

The Civil War Led to All Manner of Evils

That our nation did not remove slavery in the way it ought to have been removed helps to explain many of our nation’s problems in dealing with contemporary social evils. Those evils include abortion-on-demand, radical feminism, and rampant sodomy. In the pursuit of our constitutional rights, we have legally executed over forty million unborn children in this nation, and we are about to be oppressed with sodomite marriage. We have done this under the “protection” of the Constitution. When in our history did we take the wrong turn that allowed the Constitution to be abused in this grotesque fashion? Christians need to learn to argue that the events resulting in the cataclysm of 1861–1865 had something to do with it, which I believe is incontrovertible. (p. 4)

The Civil War led to everything evil. That it also ended slavery and gave freedom to millions of African Americans is apparently irrelevant.

Oh but wait!

African Americans Were Better Off under Slavery Than They Are Today

Who cannot lament the damage to both white and black that has occurred as a consequence of the way in which slavery was abolished? I am forced to say that, in many ways, the remedy which has been applied has resulted in problems that are every bit as bad as the original disease ever was. Christians who doubt this should consider whether it was safer to be a black child in the womb in 1858 or in 2005. (p. 58)

Wilson argues that the current situation of African Americans in the U.S. is in fact worse than their situation under slavery. Say what? Yes, that’s right, Wilson argues that African Americans were better off under slavery than they are today, because abortion. He also argues that all manner of evils (abortion, feminism, sodomy) have resulted from the Civil War. The Civil War, for Wilson, is when everything went downhill for the U.S. It’s when everything started going wrong, unlike before, when things were much better.

Who was the antebellum period better for, as compared to what came afterwards? Oh, that’s right, white males. It wasn’t better for African Americans and it wasn’t better for women either. I like that marital rape is now treated as a crime and that I am no longer considered the legal property of my husband, thank you very much, and I’m pretty sure my black readers are pretty happy they are no longer the literal property of a white owner. Wilson doesn’t seem to be halfway aware of the position of privilege from which he is speaking.

Black Culture Was Inferior

Both Northerners and Southerners were misled by the obvious inferiority of black culture at that time, which had nothing to do with whether blacks bore the image of God in man, and everything to do with whether the gospel had yet had an opportunity to do its work within black culture. (p. 17)

Oh boy. See, this is yet one more point where Wilson goes further than he went in Southern Slavery As It Was. Now, Wilson claims that he is not being racist here. No, not at all!

Not that many centuries ago, my ancestors were engaged in idolatry, human sacrifice, and mindless superstitions, and I have heard about some berserkers who would strip naked, paint themselves blue, and run into battle. Just a few centuries later, taking the long view, their descendants would be building cathedrals and writing symphonies. The gospel is the issue—grace, not race. (p. 17)

Wilson says that because his ancestors used to be superstitious primitives too, saying that black culture was inferior during slavery is totes not racist. Okay but wait. Southerners and others involved in the slave trade justified slavery at the time by arguing that black society and culture was primitive, backwards, and pagan, and that blacks were better off in slavery with a white master to care for them and access to the gospel. Saying that another culture is inferior is racist, and it leads to abuses and atrocities.

But there’s another problem here too.

All men exhibit the image of God equally, but all cultures are not equal. As we look at all the tribes of men, we see some that have landed a man on the moon, and some that have not yet worked out the concept of the wheel. We have some with one whole row in the supermarket dedicated to shampoo, while in another tribe hair is washed with cow urine. (p. 33)

Did you know that the Romans washed their clothes in urine? Yes, really. That means the early Christians (including Paul) washed their clothes in urine. Believe it or not, there is nothing in the Bible that says washing your hair with shampoo from a supermarket row is better than washing your hair with urine. There is also nothing in the Bible that says the concept of the wheel (or landing men on the moon) is at all related to the gospel.

What Wilson is doing here is severely racist. It is this racism that led to European colonization, in which Britain took over and exploited societies it considered inferior. The British sometimes claimed to be helping these societies, but in reality their motives and methods were completely self serving. Wilson may think that going to the moon is obvious evidence that Western culture is superior to more “primitive” cultures, but what measure is he using? He’s using a measure that he has created himself, as a member of Western society. I’m fairly certain people in other cultures might use different measures—in some cases, measures that judge the U.S. quite harshly.

There’s also the problem of conflating Christianity with Western culture. This was a serious problem for centuries of Protestant missionaries, who sought to both convert those around the world and get them to wear Western clothes, live in Western houses, and adopt Western culture. The reality, however, is that the gospel didn’t come attached to a specific culture, and it certainly didn’t come attached to modern Western culture. But Wilson thinks it did. For Wilson, it was the gospel that led to that aisle of shampoos in your local grocery store.

The South Was Christian (and Less Racist Than the North)

As we know, Wilson insisted in Southern Slavery As It Was that the South was a “pervasively” Christian society. But then, in Black and Tan, he writes this:

I take it as self-evident that in the disastrous outcome of the War Between the States, God was pouring out His wrath upon the South. Since our God is never capricious or arbitrary in His judgments, this outpouring of wrath was just and righteous in every respect. (p. 15-16)

Wilson says the Civil War was God’s judgement on the South, but for what?

The necessity of condemning racism is clearly revealed in Scripture, an acknowledged authority by many Southerners. Their racism was less virulent in a number of ways than what was found in the North, but it was more blameworthy. To whom much is given, much is required. (p. 17)

Presumably, then, the judgement was a judgement for racism—but Wilson is quick to argue that the South was in fact less racist than the North, and that God frequently used sinful nations to judge his chosen people (read: the Assyrians).

The discipleship of the nations is a process. This means that the South was (along with all other nations) in transition from a state of pagan autonomy to one of full submission to the Lordship of Christ. Christian influence in the South was considerable and extensive, but the laws of the South still fell short of the biblical pattern. In spite of this, the Christian influence on antebellum Southern culture surpassed most other nations in the world of that time.

Okay, hang on a second. The U.S. was settled by colonists from Europe, which was Christian at the time of settlement. How exactly, then, was this “state of pagan autonomy” created in the first place? For goodness sake, the original southern colonies mandated Christianity as their established religion and made tithing required by law! And note that Wilson contends that the South was more Christian than just about anywhere else in the world at the time. Wilson seems to see it as specially chosen and favored by God.

The South Was Right (and Robert E. Lee was a Christian Gentleman)

So I also take it as a given that the South was right on all the essential constitutional and cultural issues surrounding the war, and this is my reason for calling myself unreconstructed. I do not want to stick to my guns on this as a matter of pride, or because the issue is at the top of my list of priorities. It is not. But even so, I will not recant anything concerning that war, however trivial, simply because the current regime of intoleristas demands that I do so. Robert E. Lee is not at the center of my worldview or my theology. But when people start demanding that I treat him as an historical pariah, a peer in some way to Himmler, I am not going to do it. Lee was a gracious Christian gentleman, a brother in Christ, and an honorable man. Part of his greatness was his role in resisting the progress of the Revolution here in America.

Oh. Boy.

According to Wilson, the South was right and Robert E. Lee was a “gracious Christian gentleman” and “a brother in Christ” and “an honorable man.” That’s right, Robert E. Lee, a slaveowner, was all of those things, while Frederick Douglass, as an abolitionist, was a wicked anti-Christian bloodthirsty man (PSA: Frederick Douglass was in fact a devout Christian). Someone’s priorities seem slightly severely askew.

The Civil War Was an Enemy of the Christian Faith

The nineteenth century was the century for revolutions, even if we allow for the French Revolution in the last decade of the eighteenth century and the Russian Revolution in the first decades of the twentieth. The War Between the States was our participation in those widespread global upheavals. The Revolution, generically considered, is an enemy of the Christian faith, and it is an enemy that has not gone away. The effect and the influence of it surround us daily. Although some of the new currents were involved in it, the American War for Independence was fundamentally a conservative movement in defense of the old order. The Civil War was not; that conflagration transformed our nation in much the same way that the French Revolution transformed France. (p. 19)

I’m so done commenting I’m just going to leave this here.

The American South Was the Last Nation of the First Christendom

This quote is not from Black and Tan, but it is from the same year Black and Tan was published. Have a look at this short passage from Wilson’s 2005 book, Angels in the Architecture:

When the Confederate States of America surrendered at Appomattox, the last nation of the older order fell. So, because historians like to have set dates on which to hang their hats, we may say the first Christendom died there, in 1865. The American South was the last nation of the first Christendom.

Wilson writes that the South was “the last nation of the first Christendom”—the last truly Christian society. This 2009 quote helps clarify what Wilson means by this:

Although he believes that “the South was right on all the essential constitutional and cultural issues surrounding the war,” Wilson has repeatedly declared that he is no neo-Confederate. He prefers the label paleo-Confederate.

“You’re not going to scare me away from the word Confederate like you just said ‘Boo!’ ” Wilson says. “I would define a neo-Confederate as someone who thinks we are still fighting that war. Instead, I would say we’re fighting in a long war, and that [the Civil War] was one battle that we lost.”

In other words, Wilson sees the Civil War as a battle in the longer Christian war against evil and ungodliness—and it was a war, he says, that the Christian side (i.e. the South) lost. It’s almost like Wilson is trying to both square with Bible passages that support slavery and defend the South, which he had already determined was the last truly great, truly Christian society. Remember that he cowrote Southern Slavery As It Was with one of the founders of the League of the South, a white supremacist group that makes similar arguments with regards to the Christian nature of the antebellum South.

Conclusion

So, where does this leave us? Wilson argues that black people have been just as motivated by racial hatred as white people, and traces this animosity to the Civil War, which he paints as the source of all things evil. Wilson says that slavery was better for blacks than “pagan” Africa had been, and that blacks were safer under slavery than they are today, because abortion has rendered the black womb a dangerous place for a child. Southern slavery was not evil, he says, and he once again calls abolitionists liars and argues that slavery was relatively benign. Wilson further says that black culture was inferior to the culture of the antebellum South and that the South was less racist than the North, and so Christian that it can be termed the “last nation of the first Christendom.”

Rather than taking back anything he said in Southern Slavery As It Was, Wilson instead adds to it, arguing that blacks are just as guilty of racism as whites, that black culture was inferior, and that blacks were better off in slavery than they were in pagan Africa. You can read a further summary of Wilson’s argument in Black and Tan here. You can also read more quotes from Black and Tan here and read an excerpt here. In our next post we will torn to Wilson’s 2013 exchange with Thabiti Anyabwile.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment