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Current Events Confederate statues, Black History Month, and us

Feb. 15, 2018
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Our news cycle moves so quickly these days that the debates over Confederate statues that raged just a few months ago already feel like distant history, but as we settle into Black History Month, I find myself reflecting on when I celebrated the removal of monuments in my hometown of New Orleans. The statues represent a time marked by the enslavement and abuse of black people. But they also too closely engage with contemporary racism.

Those supporting the monuments include fanatics who perceive the effort to remove them as part of a calculated agenda to chip away at their control. Others are more moderate and look to the permanence of history for defense. They invoke the rhetorical question: Would removing them undo the past? But leaving the monuments standing is a tacit acceptance of the historical realities they depict. And again, they’re not just vestiges of a distant yesterday—they also reflect our present a little too closely for comfort.

The most optimistic of the monument-sympathetic argue that they should stay because they serve as a reminder that race relations are improving. The monuments attest to our progress, their rationale goes, symbolizing how far we’ve come since the racially fractious times they depict.

Oh boy. If we’re using the Confederacy era as a benchmark to gauge the gains we’ve made, we’re in serious trouble. Stooping so low all but guarantees actual racial equality an impossibility.

Writer Zadie Smith unknowingly captures the thoughts of other monument defenders in her review of the film Get Out: “This is always a risk in art… Write a screed against it. Critique the hell out of it… But remove it?” But should we defend art whose essence is to deny some people their humanity? Besides, the arts have a long track record of uplifting the disenfranchised. Since the monuments at hand serve the opposite function, I’d dispute their classification as art in the first place.

This case for preserving the monuments holds the most water for me: that doing away with them amounts to removing evidence of America’s irreparable crimes of slavery and Jim Crow. According to this argument, the monuments act as a jarring reminder for us and posterity, a protection against time blunting that past. But we don’t need reminders; we’re saturated with them. The pieces of contemporary evidence are so plentiful that they might cease to be sobering reminders as they should, falling instead into a thrum of background noise easy to tune out. Which is a problem—habituation allows humanitarian catastrophes to continue, unabated. We can’t afford to fall into a slumber, lulled by the illusion of normalcy. We need to stay woke.

The Confederate monuments aren’t just relics of a bygone era that we’ve overcome: they’re also extensions of our present reality. Trump and his ilk provide an overflow of evidence for this claim. They haven’t let slip by any opportunity to relegate people of color to a place of subordination. Camera footage of black men dying at the hands of law enforcement is apparently too soft an approach for the president, who urged law enforcement to be even rougher with suspects. It seems to me a blatant instance of gaslighting, a clear talent of Trump and his base. The message: the dead black people you see on camera—Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Philando Castille, it goes on—they’re not really there. And just like that, the perpetrators are free to go home.

The abuses continue from police handling to the courts. It has been substantiated time and again that black people face harsher sentences than whites, even for the same crime committed under analogous circumstances. The war on drugs also disproportionately hurts people of color, as do systems of bail and plea bargain.

The disparities extend to areas outside of policing and the courtroom. Racial differences in income have remained the same for over five decades. That’s hard to swallow: Jim Crow was still in place then. The money gap translates to disparities in education and employment, sabotaging the most obvious paths towards upward mobility in 21st-century society. 

The humiliations that many black people must endure as a matter of quotidian existence in this country are byproducts of slavery and Jim Crow. Seeing the monuments in the context of racial disparities and our abysmal political landscape underlines their odiousness. There’s a reason white nationalists came out in Charlottesville with such force to protest the city’s plan to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee, swastikas, Confederate flags, and firearms in tow. They understand that the monuments are powerful, and we should too. 

Statues honoring white power while displaying black pain are most unwelcome in a city where blacks make up sixty percent of the population with over fifty-percent living in poverty. We’ve weathered many storms together in New Orleans, and we’d do well to showcase art that captures our multiculturalism, heart, and resilience—art, in other words, that doesn’t demean well over half of us.