The fight for change sparked by Floyd’s death has also been rippling through one thing: the United States’ memorials to the confederacy and its racist past.
A lot has happened since George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis P.D. officers. America is at a reckoning, and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has unlocked unprecedented support and progress.
In the two months since Floyd’s death, there was a significant increase in these events as George Washington was defaced; protesters unceremoniously broke Ulysses S. Grant off his plinth. Christopher Columbus was brought down in Boston and Virginia. Similarly, the two Jeffersons have been brought low, and Teddy Roosevelt may soon join their ranks.
Confederate flags have not been spared. Even NASCAR recently banned the Confederate flag from its racing events and properties, in a decision which (given its impressive mileage in that competition) was as shocking as it was crucial.
Outside the U.S., other confederate and imperialist-linked symbols are facing similar treatment. Protesters in the English city of Bristol downed the statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston and dumped it in a river. Even Churchill took on some of the heat and had to be encased to prevent further “vandalism.” One statue of the genocidal 19th century King Leopold II gained no such mercy from Belgians.
Why are the statues coming down?
If there is one reason in particular for the removal of these confederate symbols, it would be the problematic historical baggage they carry. Yet, some would disagree.
Floyd’s killing did more than spark increased scrutiny into racial and systemic prejudices in the U.S. and the world. So far, it has also emboldened efforts to raze the divisive symbols that dot several landscapes.
For the many people and emblems immortalized in these icons, there is an obvious racist record. George Washington, a president’s President as he was, kept and worked hundreds of slaves freed only after his death. Similarly, Ulysses Grant, though he helped defeat the confederacy, was part of a family that owned slaves.
Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson, erstwhile Presidents, were also slave owners with reputations as to how they treated their slaves. Examples abound in the many other confederate generals who stand poised on plinths in defiance of the descendants of the people they oppressed below.
In many cases, the removal of these flags and bronze or marble likenesses was through official channels. In Mississippi, lawmakers voted in June to remove the state flag, a reproduction of the confederate battle emblem. But conventional means haven’t always been successful; that same month, request to remove the bust of a Ku Klux Klan grand wizard from the Tennessee state capitol building was voted out and denied.
There are even laws in place to protect confederate monuments, and although they continue to be assaulted by protesters, they are often too out of reach. This shows that there are those who deem the removal of these memorials as vital to positive change. And on the other hand, others who would chalk such actions up to an erasure of history.
It simply is the time for a reckoning
And it’s not going away this time around. In America, we have heard talks of a “statue history” or a “statue heritage,” which mostly sounds like a bad excuse for the school counselor to try and escape detention.
The confederate flags and monuments are commemorations of efforts and people who fought to keep other people enslaved and ensure a white supremacist future. In fact, a majority were also made, in subtle pushback, with the Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised black Americans.
This comprehensive study of these confederate statues put the construction of majority in the early 1900s and the 1950s-60s, both times of serious civil rights turmoil.
For minorities in America who have always been denied the liberty to express themselves, they shed their blood just to preserve these statues and flags, which are windows into a repressive past that will always be antithetical to a better future. This emotional turmoil matters greatly if America must do right by those who were victims of its (confederate) divisive racial history.
Unfortunately, some exploit the profound divisiveness in the U.S. today, to politicize the removal of these statues. It was troubling to see reports of people bearing arms to defend “their southern history and culture,” cheering on some elected officials. Despite the fact that problematic emblems have very often in history been removed, confederate symbols are still in use even as they stand for oppression, discrimination, and war.
By any and all means…
…is how those who seek to stop the removals would ensure that these symbols remain. But that is not the only option.
In fact, a recent WSJ/NBC poll has shown people’s openness to a reasonable middle ground in the confederate statue debate. The poll, which inquired into what should be done to the confederate statues, polled low percentages of those who want them removed or destroyed on the one hand (10%), and those who want them untouched on the other (16%).
According to the poll, 31% wanted the statues moved into museums or private property, and about 41% preferred them left alone, but with a plaque added to show historical context. Of the Black American pollsters, only 22% opted to destroy or remove them, as opposed to the 74 % who took a middle ground.
The poll just shows proof of how much this issue is politicized in the mainstream. The animosity against these statues is not as much in their existence, as in how they are glamorously displayed in the public glare, especially when they are reminders of the racist past that drives today’s social and systemic prejudices.
If these icons must be “symbols of heritage and southern pride, “they must be so in the proper context and place or be “direct symbols of terror to our black brothers and sisters.” And it will be removal enough when they are brought down from exalted pedestals that suggest false virtue, glamor, and pomp.
Do you believe confederate statues and flags should be removed from government owned properties?