Home / General / Should Racist Monuments Remain Standing?

Should Racist Monuments Remain Standing?

Comments
/
/
/
1152 Views

robert-e-lee-monument-new-orleans-AP-640x480

I think one can make a case for maintaining Confederate monuments, but I don’t think Zachary Fine really makes it. Writing about the recent New Orleans decision to take down several Confederate memorials, Fine writes:

But some major black intellectuals today suggest—though not explicitly—that there might be value in preserving visible traces of racial prejudice. Ta-Nehisi Coates and the law professor Michelle Alexander, among others, have pointed to legal scholars and sociologists who believe that “colorblind” policies and laws are responsible for not only perpetuating racial discrimination under the guise of putatively non-discriminatory language—in domains of housing, employment, policing, incarceration, and jury selection, for instance—but in making it more difficult to identify explicit instances of racism. In The New Jim Crow, Alexander argues that “it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt.” Consequentially, evidence of racial discrimination, she claims, is “the very evidence unavailable in the era of colorblindness.” In cities with large and disadvantaged black populations, such as New Orleans and Baltimore (currently in the process of removing its own Confederate monuments), it would seem imperative, then, to have monuments that represent America’s history of racial discrimination: providing a counter-narrative to the myth of post-racialism and forcing the public to confront the enduring effects of our dark past.

A pledge to reckon with this past would require that we remain committed to learning from, in Landrieu’s words, the “history that has separated us.” To dismount Lee is to cut off one head of the Hydra. Instead of ushering in a new, more progressive era, replacing monuments and names with politically palatable alternatives is to expunge the traces of a history whose ruinous effects still course through our democracy.

This is not to say that we should necessarily keep all monuments. Rather, if the statue of Lee is to be removed, perhaps it should be replaced with a monument commemorating the more than 100,000 slaves sold between 1804 and 1862 in New Orleans. And if the statue of Rhodes is to be preserved at Oxford (as Oriel College recently decided), new monuments and plaques that reject racial prejudice or provide alternative histories should be commissioned.

The statue of Lee, like many monuments, does not simply recall the historical figure but reminds us of the unjust conditions from which it came. We desperately need our monuments to summon that side of history in the struggle against racial injustice today.

Maybe, but I think there’s a lot more intellectual work that needs to be done to make this case. Let’s break this down a bit:

In cities with large and disadvantaged black populations, such as New Orleans and Baltimore (currently in the process of removing its own Confederate monuments), it would seem imperative, then, to have monuments that represent America’s history of racial discrimination: providing a counter-narrative to the myth of post-racialism and forcing the public to confront the enduring effects of our dark past.

The question is whether taking down gigantic monuments to Lee would somehow create a post-racial narrative that would obscure the need for fighting racial injustice. I just don’t think that’s the case. If anything, those monuments embolden people like Dylann Roof. I don’t think there is any myth of post-racialism in 2016 and I think taking those monuments down actually is forcing the public to confront the past. But I don’t think we should go full post-Soviet with Lenin statues. I don’t want to see these monuments ground into dust. Rather, I think they can do work for us. A bit more from the piece:

A pledge to reckon with this past would require that we remain committed to learning from, in Landrieu’s words, the “history that has separated us.” To dismount Lee is to cut off one head of the Hydra. Instead of ushering in a new, more progressive era, replacing monuments and names with politically palatable alternatives is to expunge the traces of a history whose ruinous effects still course through our democracy.

To dismount Lee from the ridiculous New Orleans monument and replace him with, say, Martin Luther King, does not expunge our history. It tells a different story, a story where we venerate justice instead of oppression. But the question then remains what one does with those monuments. There are answers that can do the work Fine thinks the monuments as standing can provide. Most of them should end up in museums. Some could be redeployed in parks with a lot of interpretation, making them a monument against white supremacy rather than for white supremacy. Perhaps sticking a gazebo around them that force people walk past interpretative material would help. But around the old sites of all the monuments, New Orleans could put up sophisticated and well-conceived historical signs talking about what was there, what horrors these people did, why the monuments were placed there, and why they were taken down. There are plenty of quality historical interpreters doing this work. It is far from an impossible task. There are many ways to remember the past. Taking down the most egregious monuments to white supremacy, monuments that were placed intentionally to intimidate post-Reconstruction African-Americans, is part of the larger push for racial justice. That doesn’t mean we forget the past. It means we retell it for our own purposes, just as the ex-Confederates did for their own purposes in the late 19th century.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
It is main inner container footer text