All ‘Racist’ Monuments Are Not Created Equal
Before we demolish U.S. history, we need to face U.S. history.
An old classmate from my school days in Kissimmee, Florida, recently shared something on Facebook that switched on a light bulb in my head. In the post, he compared anyone’s being offended by Confederate monuments to his being offended by men walking around wearing baggy pants hanging so low their underwear shows.
It was impossible not to miss the racist implication of the post. What does one have to do with the other? Confederate monuments glorify men who tried to take down the country, the same one the people who defend them tend to claim is so sacred. In defending Confederate statues, they conveniently set aside the staunch, unforgiving patriotism they use to crucify anyone who kneels during the national anthem.
Low-hanging trousers, on the other hand, are just a (bad) fashion statement. They have nothing to do with historic oppression and degradation of an entire race of people. Those men flashing underwear could easily pull up their trousers. Problem solved? Of course not. How they wear their pants doesn’t mean anything to my old classmate. It’s the men in general. Most of them are Black and Latino, and that’s their real offense. He didn’t have to say it to scream it.
His distaste for the way they wear pants has as much to do with sartorial etiquette as the debate over Confederate statues does with the actual statues — at least for many of the people who want to preserve them. Most of them couldn’t offer a single detail about the life of Robert E. Lee that doesn’t involve his stint as a Confederate general during the Civil War, nor do they devote any significant private time contemplating the great accomplishments of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson or Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
To them, the Confederate statues and the push to topple them represent something larger than marble and even Southern identity. The statues are a symbol of white supremacy, and they see the movement to topple them as a movement to topple the white supremacy and white privilege that have allowed whites to flourish and prosper by achieving the so-called American dream for centuries.
Giving them up would be tantamount to relinquishing their place in the social order. If Robert E. Lee falls again, what will be next? Will the statue of a Black leader white people have never heard of replace him? Will whites have to accept equal billing to Blacks in the American narrative? Will we learn of the great contributions Black Americans have made to American society? Will the stock of Black Americans rise while the stock of white Americans fall?
When slavery ended after the Civil War, the biggest worry for many white men was that Blacks would take their jobs and infiltrate their way of life. Segregation and the sharecropping system were ways to keep Blacks in their place and preserve the white status quo. But in a post-George Floyd world, resurgent Black power and white enlightenment are threatening something even more important to them: white identity — not just the way we see them, but the way they see themselves.
Personally, I think we have bigger fish to fry than statues. The monuments themselves are less important than the growing awareness, by Blacks and by whites, of just how intricately racism is sewn into the fabric of our nation. We’re now looking at things many of us had never before considered — the movies we’ve watched our entire lives, phrases that have become part of the American vernacular, the very foundation of our social and political culture.
But about those statues. I have mixed feelings about them. The Confederate heroes can go. The only reason we know these men at all is because they killed American soldiers and tried to overthrow the government. They were, in essence, traitors clinging to a way of life that cost other Americans theirs.
The secession of the Southern states and, by extension, the Confederate States of America, as Confederate Vice President Alexander Hamilton Stephens pointed out in his 1861 “Cornerstone Speech,” was based upon “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” The Civil War was all about preserving the so-called natural order and the economic might of the South through slavery. No one would have gone to war simply over states’ rights.
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson, for all their flaws, were more than their slave-owning ways. I’m not particularly fond of any of them, and had I lived in their time, they certainly would have regarded me as dirt. Jefferson made that perfectly clear in his book Notes on the State of Virginia, a literary work in which he quibbled over the inferior smell of Black people.
But then, most white men would have looked down on me. I’m currently reading The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, in which he writes about Native Americans and “the design of Providence to extirpate these savages in order to make room for cultivators of the earth.” I’ll never think of him in the same way again. But I don’t want to erase him or cancel him. Without the efforts of Franklin — the man who helped establish one of the first public libraries in the U.S., invented the lightning rod, and procured the financial assistance of France during the Revolutionary War — the U.S. might never have existed.
The greatest American tragedy is that racism was the cornerstone of the Union, too, and was even written into our national anthem. The country was built, quite literally, by it. That creates an infinitely awkward situation for Black Americans. The majority of the U.S. Presidents before my lifetime were white supremacists. Ten of the first dozen were slave owners at some point. Woodrow Wilson, the man who led the country through World War I was an unrepentant racist who re-segregated the federal government. Harry Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson, despite the advancements Black Americans made during their administrations, did not refrain from using the N-word in private conversation.
Ulysses S. Grant, the general credited with leading the Union to victory in the Civil War, didn’t do so because he was an ardent abolitionist. To him, it was a challenge to meet, an occasion to which he had to rise. Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy had evolving attitudes about race. For all their belated enlightenment, though, they probably wouldn’t be considered “woke” by today’s standards.
Sadly, many of the white men responsible for making the United States what it is today, for better and for worse, had more in common with historic titans like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson than they did with less-celebrated leaders like John Quincy Adams and James A. Garfield, the sixth and 20th U.S. Presidents, respectively, who, as far as I know, were the kind of white allies who probably would participate in a Black Lives Matter protest today.
Do we tear everything down and start over? We can’t do that with a country that already has racism at its root, but we can cut out as much rot as we can. Those Confederate heroes mean nothing to the United States, and anyone who says monuments to them should serve as reminders of what we shouldn’t be are liars. If they haven’t taught us everything we need to know by now, they never will. Tear them down.
The American Presidents, though, are part of our national identity. They weren’t appointed. We elected them. I would hate to see us start doing to them what we do to celebrities. Instead of inspecting their social media for a hint of discriminatory language, we’d be scouring the annals of history for any hint of tone deafness or cultural insensitivity. Uh-oh. There’s Calvin Coolidge wearing a Native American headdress. Cancel him!
The name Woodrow Wilson will always make me cringe, and when Donald Trump leaves office, I’d love nothing more than to erase him from my memory and pretend he was just a bad dream. But I can’t. It’s not too late to change the American narrative, but it’s too late to change our founding fathers and the white men who succeeded them.
We can’t wipe the slate clean and start over. We’re going to have to learn to live with our troubling contradictory history. The first step is facing it and letting the uncomfortable, unspeakable horror of it sink in. Blacks have already been doing that for centuries.
Demolishing every single historic reminder of America’s racist past won’t wash us clean. But if the United States is going to be sullied by its own history, we should at least scrub off the racist villains who tried and failed to take it down.