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White Supremacist Statues

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During Trump’s grotesque response to Charlottesville, he noted that if we take down statues of our heroes Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, where does it stop? Do we take down the Washington and Jefferson statues too? The overwhelming response to him and this line of argument is that the Washington and Jefferson statues don’t exist because of slavery, but in spite of it, whereas they are the only reasons the Lee and Davis statues were erected. That’s a pretty good answer. But Trump’s question is actually unintentionally good. There is no clear line here. Statues of the same figure mean different things in different places. Moreover, the racist history of the United States has far more facets than just African slavery. What about statues to the people involved in that? I was driving through Monroe, Michigan a couple of months ago. That is the home town of George Armstrong Custer. There is a monstrosity of a statue to the man there.

Custer was not only an idiot, but was an active participant in genocide. He should be more famous for his butchery at the Washita than his own death eight years later. Sure, he’s from Monroe, but his memory is that of an American hero when he was in fact a horrible villain. Should we leave Custer statues alone? Or take them down? What on earth did Custer do that was good? This seems much more akin to Lee and Davis than Jefferson and Washington.

This article about racist statues in Hawaii is what inspired this post.

On Sunday, Aug. 20, a group of activists marched on McKinley High School in Honolulu, calling for the removal of the statue of President William McKinley that stands there.

“He led the takeover of Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines and Cuba,” said Khara Jabola-Carolus, co-founder of AF3IRM Hawaii, in this Aug. 20 Hawaii News Now story. “His legacy is painful for people of color in Hawaii and throughout the Pacific.”

It makes sense that AF3IRM is so prominent in this action. As their website notes, they don’t mess around.

“Hawai‘i is not the playground of the new gilded age,” states the AF3IRM Hawaii website. “We are a battleground for indigenous, immigrant, and women’s self-determination. We focus on fighting for improvements to women’s daily lives on all fronts including the legislature, the city council, the courtroom, the boardroom, and the classroom.”

But I digress. As President, McKinley built up the United States as a mighty world power by exploiting the resources and labor of conquered peoples throughout the Caribbean and Pacific. Honoring him now is an affront to our modern notions of justice and civil rights.

Of course, we shouldn’t stop there. If McKinley’s statue should come down, then so should the various statues and monuments honoring Captain James Cook around Hawaii. I can’t think of a more blatant expression of white supremacist imperialism than a statue of Cook (of course, the issue of what symbols to knock down is highly subjective: a friend of the paper, when asked what he’d like to see go, said simply, “Knock down Waikiki and return the kalo!”).

At the same time, how about erecting new statues that honor individuals and events that have been whitewashed? It’s nice that Maui has statues of Queen Ka‘ahumanu (though it’s in a shopping mall instead of public property) and the Chinese physician and revolutionary Sun Yat Sen, but how about one of David Malo? And while we’re at it, put up some sort of monument in Olowalu to commemorate the 100 or so victims of the 1790 massacre there.

I agree with everything here. This is a case where a statue of William McKinley means something different in Hawaii than in Ohio. There was a massive craze to honor McKinley after his death that is about more than just imperialism. As the last Civil War veteran to be president, his death got caught up in a larger cultural craze about manhood, remembrance, and generation that has a more recent cousin in the Greatest Generation foolishness of the 1990s and 2000s. Remembering McKinley was about his presidency conquering overseas territories, but was also about a generation worried about the future and seeing a more robust and masculine past that statues could help replicate in a new generation. Thus there are McKinley statues up all over the place, especially in Ohio, but also in, say, random Massachusetts town squares.

But in Hawaii, there is one primary reason why a statue to McKinley exists, not to mention a statue to James Cook. It’s very similar to the South and Confederate statues. These are expression of white power over a conquered population. And we should not support their continued existence. There are plenty of other people we can commemorate.

And as to Trump’s question, these issues will never be settled. There is no discussing the past without discussing the present. The sheer reason we talk about the past is as an expression of ourselves, our values, and our politics. Even saying that “I don’t bring politics into my interest in history” is explicitly political, if unintentionally so, for it expresses a comfort with the present that is telling in its own choices. We will keep having these debates forever. As we should.

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