In the wake of the George Floyd murder and the national call for social justice for African Americans, there have been renewed calls for the removal of public statues depicting and glorifying Confederate generals and other advocates of racism past and present. On the surface this is clearly a good thing and a sign of progress, as past efforts to remove these status have largely failed.
However, for one brief moment, I wondered if this was really the best thing for Black people. Recently, American educator Jane Elliot was interviewed by Roland Martin. In the interview, she jokingly stated that we should keep the racist statues and use them for target practice. She went on to state that it would be more productive to take what was once meant to be celebrated and turn it to a source of ridicule.
To a certain extent I found myself in agreement with her point. While considering how to approach this article, I spoke with a mentor of mine and he asked me a question: “What if someone killed your father, and then the government took your tax dollars to build a monument honoring the murderer? How would you feel?” Of course, when it was personalized as such, his point, and the reason that these racist statues should be removed, was crystal clear.
A monument is a structure explicitly created to celebrate and commemorate a person or event that has become relevant to a social group by definition. The question then is, who determines who and what is worthy of celebration? What social group? Considering the resources and tax dollars utilized to build and maintain these monuments, it is only logical that they should depict the heroes celebrated by all those who are contributing towards their construction and maintenance.
In the 16th century, Martin Luther, in his debates with the iconoclasts, said, “Idols in the church create idols in the mind.” If I were re-phrase this in 21st century terms, I’d state, “Racist statues in American culture perpetuate a superiority complex in racist Americans.” They validate the barbaric behavior and treasonous acts of the descendants of slave-owning Americans. Thus, unequivocally they must go.
But once the statues are gone, what substance are we left with? Are we suddenly treated equally? Is the wealth gap being closed? When asked about the need for reparations for Black America, Mitch McConnell infamously replied, “They got Barack Obama.” Our 44th President was an American citizen with the skill set and capacity to lead this country, and thus his election to the presidency was his right as an American, not a gift to Black America for hundreds of years of oppression. While Obama’s two terms in office stand as a tremendous symbol of the possibility that exists, his presidency was one small step, not the end of the story. Many Blacks celebrated his election, as they should have. But they didn’t fully embrace the fact that this was symbolic, and that many white Americans deeply resented having a Black President and yearned for a white racist successor, which in 2016 they got. As a result, there was very little follow through to push legislation and policies which would bring forth substantive change on a large-scale basis. As many whites embraced the politics of grievance, a large percentage of Blacks didn’t even vote in the midterm elections to ensure that President Obama’s party maintained control of the House and Senate so that he could more effectively push his agenda. Many whites like Mitch McConnell took this to be a sign that the work was over, so Blacks should stop complaining.
It will be no different after the statues are removed. While it’s good we are celebrating their removal, let’s not forgot we must continue to push for policies ensuring lasting, systemic change. Many low-information whites will take their removal to mean that there is no longer racism in America, just as they proclaimed this when Barack Obama was elected. They will say, “Score one for the Black people. Now what do we get in return?”
As they say in AA, the first step to change is recognizing that you have a problem. If those in power feel the problem has gone away because Blacks got what they wanted in the statue wars, then our work will remain difficult.
Removing racist statues is a huge step. However, below are two thoughts that I hope all Americans, not just Blacks, will embrace and embark upon.
Seize the Moment. When I was growing up, my dad told me he never thought a Black man would ever be President. When Obama won, he said to me in all seriousness, “I hope they don’t kill him.” That was the mentality of many older Black Americans, and rightly so; the undeniable horror of historical reality made them hesitate to celebrate Obama’s achievement. To preserve their very lives, Black parents have taught extreme caution to their children, and thus many of us don’t fully realize our potential, and we don’t think certain things are possible. But now is the time. The nation rallied after the death of George Floyd. We have fought to remove racist statues for decades, and now it is finally happening. Don’t take this moment lightly—the door is open, so let’s use this opportunity really push for substantive change, not just symbols.
Learn from History. We think we profit from studying history, but unfortunately it’s more often as philosopher Georg Hegel said: “We learn from history that we don’t learn from history.” As Jane Elliot stated in her interview with Roland Martin, we can’t forget the past. It happened. Of course, we shouldn’t celebrate it, but we should learn from it. Understand the atrocities that were perpetuated towards Blacks. Take time to understand how systematically and meticulously the racist systems were developed, and how our people were taught to hate ourselves and other Blacks while reverencing the white man and his culture. In doing so, we’ll begin to understand ourselves and others better. We should celebrate all the brilliant Black individuals who did so many monumental things to build this country and the world. In doing so, you should be empowered and encouraged to know that you can do the same.