Political Mann: Obama drawn into slavery debate

With an African-American in the Oval Office, is this a good time to honour the 19th century soldiers who fought for slavery?

“It’s idiocy,” says historian Douglas Brinkley.

But it’s suddenly a debate that has even drawn-in President Barack Obama, whose wife Michelle is descended from slaves.

The debate began when the Republican governor of Virginia state restored this month’s official observance of Confederate History Month, honouring the sacrifices made by the South in the American Civil War 150 years ago.

Regional pride still runs strong and many southerners remember the conflict as a brutal invasion by the North, which overpowered the South’s brave defenders.

But what the Virginia governor neglected to mention is that one of the principal causes of the war was African-American slavery.

The governor, a Republican, first tried to explain his oversight and then apologised for it. That’s when the president had his say.

“I don’t think you can understand the Confederacy or the Civil War unless you understand slavery. And so I think that was an unacceptable omission. I think the governor’s now acknowledged that.”

Historian Brinkley says in fact, Republicans are hoping that a few kind words about the Confederacy will help them rally white voters in the South who supported Obama but can be roused by an appeal to regional pride.

“Barack Obama won North Carolina and Virginia. The Republicans have no formula to regaining power in 2012 without those two states.”

The Republicans, according to Brinkley, “are trying to make a play for those two states”.

But the former head of the Republican Party, governor Haley Barbour of the southern state of Mississippi, says the controversy “is trying to make a big deal out of something that doesn’t matter for diddly”.

In the 18 months since Obama became the first African-American elected to the presidency, his race has stopped mattering nearly as much as his policies on America’s economy, healthcare and two foreign wars.

Obama did make history, but he didn’t erase the history that preceded him and America is still working through it.

  • Jonathan Mann presents Political Mann on CNN International each Friday at 18:30 (CAT), Saturday at 1500 and 2100 (CAT), and Sunday at 1000 (CAT).

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