The recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, during which protesters clashed with white supremacists, has reignited a long-simmering national debate about whether monuments honoring the Confederacy should have a place in public spaces. Quietly and not so quietly, some have been removed or face removal soon. Hundreds of protestors showed up Saturday to support the removal of the so-called "Spirit of the Confederacy" statue in Sam Houston Park. Four other such statues on the South Mall of UT-Austin, albeit of actual people, will be removed and relocated immediately, university president Gregory Fenves's office said late Sunday.
Reactions to increased criticism of these statues has been enormous; the latest debate played out on news outlets and social media the entire past week, with no resolution in sight. Personally, I've witnessed many people I respect argue that, by taking these monuments down, local governments are engaging in some disservice to history, with some going so far as to suggest that it erases it.
I have to disagree. Monuments don't preserve history; they only celebrate specific pieces of it. The events of the Civil War are well-documented, and in no danger of being forgotten. Monuments say a lot more about the values of an era and which things the people of that time choose to glorify. In the case of monuments commemorating Confederate heroes, one has to wonder what exactly is being honored, particularly when that statue is on public land, which our taxes go towards maintaining. Should a person of color be forced to pay for the preservation of statues of men who fought to keep their ancestors as the property?
History is messy, and few leaders on either side of the Civil War were angels, but do we really need to celebrate a cause that fought to preserve slavery? Some try to frame the conflict as a war over states' rights, but that's a dodge, and not a very good one. The specific right they fought for was the right for white people to own slaves, and there's really no way to play that angle down, although some whites have tried to for generations.
I've always been uncomfortable with Confederate monuments. Whenever I've passed them, I don't feel like I'm seeing a reminder of history, so much as a message that some whites still miss a time when African-Americans were slaves. I'm as white as a white guy can be, and while experiencing those unpleasant feelings, I have to wonder how a person of color might feel seeing Robert E. Lee staring down at him or her on a courthouse lawn. Would they feel comfortable?
Recently, M. Yvonne Taylor wrote a great piece for the Houston Chronicle about her feelings on the subject. As an African-American Southerner, she makes the point that people like her are just as much a part of the fabric of the South and its history as any white person. Why then, are their voices on this subject often secondary to the comfort of white people and white opinions?
I've been witnessing lots of white guys — people I generally like, and in some cases good friends, who I know to be decent people — making increasingly desperate-sounding arguments about how removing these statues is a bad idea. I've seen them do something that white guys do a lot: dismissing emotional arguments, and trying to dismantle them with a kind of cold and detached logic (logic that is often flawed). Sadly, that's something men, and especially white men, seem quick to do. We’re privileged, and many of us grow comfortable being looked to as an authority that is the last word on a subject. Logic is the weapon many use to derail or dismiss arguments heavy in emotional content, even when those arguments are valid.
The flaw in this dismissal of emotional arguments, is that there's a legitimate reason many people feel these statues should go. In the case of non-whites, the public display of statues honoring men who fought to preserve slavery must feel oppressive. A way to signal that some people still look with admiration towards a time when white men fought to preserve the institution of slavery.
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I've seen guys trying to equate the moral failings of guys like George Washington to Confederates like Robert. E. Lee, using the very logical approach that by any standard, both were racists, and even old George wasn't a saint. If we’re to take down statues of Lee, why not Washington? Or so the argument goes. The answer of course is that George Washington’s monuments don't elicit the kind of reaction that Confederate monuments do. Washington’s don't stand as symbols of oppression to modern people, white supremacists don't view them the same way and they don't send the same message. Those are important distinctions.
What does a person of color feel about these monuments? How do they make them feel? Because we’re at a point where white guys probably need to shut up and listen. At this point, white comfort should be secondary to the feelings of Americans who view these statues as oppressive.
Also, how is this issue concerning the Confederacy even controversial at this point in history? The fact that it is for many whites is telling. We need to be willing to deal with uncomfortable parts of our history, quit glorifying the sins of our ancestors, trying to perpetuate myths that the Confederacy was in some way noble, and get these statues off of public land. Put them into museums where they can be viewed with added context, or onto private property where they can't stand as a symbol of oppression or intimidation to anyone.
Sometimes people are presented with choices that will put them on the right or wrong side of history. This feels like one of those pivotal moments. It's time to do the right thing, and get these Confederate monuments out of public spaces.