I've been trying to find the language to talk about Bob McDonnell's Confederate History Month Proclamation and what it means. I don't for a second think that McDonnell was being racist or intended to stoke or profit from racism, but I do think he was trying to play an identity politics game and got caught. My read is that the Proclamation was designed to make white Virginians with roots in the mid-1800s and earlier feel good about their ancestors. The problem was that the history Proclamation, in the interest of constituency group flattery, left out too much history that was too important.
McDonnell recovered well and manfully but the original Proclamation showed obstacles for conservatives in making sustained gains among African Americans. One problem is the tendency not to look at how statements look through the lens of African American experience. It is a habit of mind to ask oneself "How would this statement sound to someone whose family history (or if not of their own family history, that of the majority of the group they affiliate with) includes slavery and Jim Crow." A second problem is having to navigate the tensions between constituencies that might have overlapping policy preferences, but deeply felt differences about history and identity. Most white Virginians with roots in the mid-1800s or earlier might see the Confederacy and Confederate soldiers one way, and most African Americans another way. This disagreement about the past (which is about justice and honor among other things) can, if kindled, become much more salient than any agreement the two groups might have about abortion or taxes.
So what can we conservatives do? I think that the first step is to come up with an interpretation and rhetoric that accommodates what is true in both narratives. Many Confederate soldiers did feel themselves to be fighting for their homes and families and not for slavery as such. Slavery was (as McDonnell told us) the cause of the war. The Confederacy was an attempt to preserve chattel slavery and it is a blessing that the institution was destroyed and our nation preserved. Such an answer will not satisfy everyone, but it might satisfy enough to get people talking about shared principles and the issues of the day, and have the added virtue of being true. When one combines McDonnell's original Proclamation with his apology, one can perhaps see an outline of what such a rhetoric might look like. Though maybe, if he had it to do over again, McDonnell would not have issued the Proclamation in the first place. But even if he hadn't issued the Proclamation, issues of this sort could well come up unbidden.