Confederate statues are part of a politics that trades on white fears and cultural wars that scapegoat black and brown people. It’s time to confront this
During his infamous press conference this Tuesday, as he vehemently defended his claim that both sides were to blame for the violence in Charlottesville, Donald Trump declared “many of these people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E Lee. This week, it is Robert E Lee … is it George Washington next?”
In Trump’s view, some of the protesters were there simply to protect and preserve American history. “Not all of those people were white supremacists,” he said. One shouldn’t expect, I suppose, Trump to see the intimate connection between the two.
A debate has ensued, once again, about the role and place of memorialization of the Confederacy. The city of Baltimore, under the cover of night, removed all of its Confederate monuments. In April, New Orleans did the same and the city’s mayor, Mitch Landrieu, eloquently explained why.
Cities throughout the country – from Boston, Massachusetts to Jacksonville, Florida – are actively considering removing Confederate monuments. In Durham, North Carolina, Takiyah Thompson and other activists took the matter into their own hands. They tied a rope around a statue of an armed Confederate soldier and pulled it to the ground.
Trump took to Twitter to lament it all. “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can’t change history … ” But, honestly, the debate about these monuments isn’t about history at all. It’s about what we choose to remember and to forget.
Historians and a host of others have recently written articles, appeared on news shows, and engaged in tweetstorms to show that these monuments have little, if anything, to do with the actual civil war or the so-called heroes of the Confederacy.
An infographic from the Southern Poverty Law Center demonstrates that the majority of the monuments were built between 1910 and 1920 as Jim Crow became law throughout the south and, later, during the 1950s and 1960s as African Americans demanded full citizenship.
These are monuments to white supremacy, and therein lies the connection with the “white supremacist thugs” we saw in Charlottesville. But Trump, like so many others, chooses to actively forget this history in order to preserve an illusory innocence that hides our national sins.
What we choose to forget often reveals the limits of justice in our collective imaginations. What we choose to memorialize reflects what we actually value. If we tell the story of these monuments as if they are innocent representations of our past, without consideration of the historical context and what they actually represent, we breathe life into a view of this country that makes the white extremists possible. We become complicit with the lie that America is, in fact, a white nation.
It seems only right that the debate about Confederate memorials happens now. It is too easy to condemn white nationalists and neo-Nazis. Their explicit hatred makes them monsters. But how should we understand Trump’s “innocents” – those who were simply there to protest the removal of Robert E Lee’s statue?
That statue represents an idea of whiteness they refuse to relinquish; it is a part of a politics that trades on white fears, ongoing cultural wars that scapegoat black and brown people and policy decisions deeply rooted in racial animus. Until we confront honestly all of this, we will remain on this racial hamster wheel.
James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, gets it right. In getting rid of the Confederate monuments, “you’re not changing history,” he said. “You’re changing how we remember history.”
In this moment of crisis, we have an opportunity to do just that. If the country fails this time, I am not convinced we will have another chance.
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