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Charles Dew on Diane Rehm Show

One of the South’s oldest rationalizations for the Civil War was that it grew out of polemical differences over states’ rights. In his landmark Apostles of Disunion, Charles Dew revealed how a blatantly white-supremacist message was at the center of the secessionist movement. It might surprise you to find that the man who set this record straight was himself a former Confederate youth, born and raised in the heart of the Jim Crow south.

In his latest book Dew provides an unfiltered view of the ruthlessly segregated world in which he grew up and how he escaped it. The Making of a Racist shows, from the inside, how a culture of racism is passed on from one generation to the next, contaminating even the lives of otherwise decent people—people who in some regards might remind us of our own families.

Dew recently discussed his book on the Diane Rehm Show. Dew described his upbringing in a family that believed strongly in segregation and white supremacy. Rehm asked him if he felt during his childhood that he was on the "right side of history," that it was all right to look down on African Americans? Dew's response: "Absolutely, absolutely. White supremacy reigned and the other side of white supremacy is black inferiority. We were taught, as reasonably well bred white Southerners, to behave decently, but the whole racial etiquette that governed the way black and white interacted with each other, all of those customs and folk ways that were part of the Jim Crow South I absorbed. And the word I use in the book is osmosis. A lot of it, you didn't have to be told. . . .There were cups and saucers in the cupboard that were for the two people who—African Americans who worked at our home. We were not to use those. We were told that very early. If an African American person came to any door of our home other than the back door, there was a potential explosion in the offing. I witnessed my father do this once. It was a searing experience. I never forgot. So you just absorb this stuff and you're told over and over again, this is best for both races. They're happy on their side of town. We're happy on ours. It's the way things were meant to be."

Dew eventually moved away from the south and, due partly to the eye-opening process of becoming a historian, came to strongly refute his racist upbringing. Asked by Rehm if he felt our society can ever resolve its continuing racial inequality and misunderstandings, Dew said, "I live in hope. I like to be an optimist. I think we're a decent country, a decent people. I think if we can become aware of these things, we can deal with them. That's why it's so important to confront them honestly and openly. We were talking about historical myth. We have to deal with a lot of the same sort of a thing in present day America. There is just so much misunderstanding and so much ignorance. And those are barriers we should be able to do something about." 

A transcript of the entire interview is available on the Diane Rehm Show web site. The Making of a Racist is available now.

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