In the wake of last week’s deadly and violent protests in Charlottesville, the campaign to remove memorials to Confederate soldiers and their leaders has become more and more mainstream.
In a single night, Baltimore city officials removed all of their Confederate monuments. Protesters in Durham, North Carolina, took matters into their own hands and pulled one down with a rope. Charlottesville city council members today, after a raucous council meeting disrupted by protesters angered by the city’s handling of the march, unanimously agreed to take down their Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson statues. Statues and memorials in Austin, Texas, New Orleans, Louisiana, Annapolis, Maryland, Brooklyn, New York, and others have been removed already. Numerous others have been recommended for removal or face fights to have them removed by city officials.
One would think that the acceleration of a movement to remove longstanding, romanticized symbols to soldiers who fought for the Confederacy and the perpetuation of slavery in America would be welcome and encouraged, at least by activists on the Left.
Yet the doubters are chiming in.
I’ve seen a handful of black activists (you read right, “black activists”) on social media saying that “pulling down statues” isn’t doing anything for black people or to eliminate racism. Instead, they say, we should be aiming at larger goals such as reparations, etc.
I disagree with the first part strenuously. As for reparations, I’m all for them.
Here’s the problem with overlooking the opportunity to take down Confederate memorials from Orlando to Boston to Seattle to San Diego: Gaining genuine equality in the United States, fulfilling Martin’s dream and ending the reign of institutional racism isn’t like climbing a vast, seemingly unscalable staircase. You can’t skip steps in hopes of getting to the top faster.
No, the fight for civil rights for black Americans, for all people of color in America, is more like a pre-launch checklist on a manned spaceflight. Unfortunately, if you miss an item (say removing racist memorials to Confederate soldiers), you run the risk of the whole mission failing and costing people their dignity, their freedom, and their lives.
This is not, in any way, an argument to wait on anything. I am the first person to recall and reiterate Martin’s sentiments from Birmingham:
“Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’”
I am not saying “Wait!” I am saying “Act now!”
I’m white, so I’m the first person to say you don’t have to listen to me and you have every right to be skeptical of me because of that. While I find the American racial dynamic vile and repulsive and inhumane, I nonetheless benefit from it by default. So, if you want to stop reading this now, go ahead. If you’re a person of color, I have to cause to blame you.
As for the checklist metaphor, I use it because we have to consider that every step we skip in our attempts to end racism, whether it be removing monuments, demanding fair voting districts, or ignoring institutional segregation in lieu of some other goal, we leave instability and unanswered questions in our wake regarding the basis for this new social and political order.
Besides, this is happening whether you’re on board or not. Why quibble that you aren’t getting the next three things on your checklist today? If we accomplish one thing swiftly due to the leftward swing in public opinion after Charlottesville and Trump’s immoral “many sides” comments, shouldn’t we take advantage of the wind at our backs?
If the events of the past few weeks hadn’t occurred, how quickly do you think removing these monuments would have proceeded? This, in my opinion, doesn’t suck. You can be enthusiastic about this, support it 100% and still be adamant and impatient for larger goals that, yes, will have greater impact. We have to aggressively address “redlining” practices of realtors and banks that reinforce the segregation of our cities and neighborhoods. We have to stridently fight the defunding of public schools. We have to end the militarization of a poorly trained and racist police force. We have to stop the racist “War on Drugs” and the rise of for-profit prisons and mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug violations. I’ve just scratched the surface, I know, and there is so much further to go.
And although I am a white man who only suffers the indignities of black people second-hand at best, I believe it is not unwise to take this moment, maybe a month or two, and insist on the removal of as many of these monuments as we possibly can…as quickly as possible.
There are 718 Confederate monuments across the country. If we remove 100 this month, okay, that’s 100 places that your children and mine won’t be sold the lie that there is something romantic and admirable about the men who fought to enslave black Americans forever. If we remove 300, even better. If we remove every last one, well, guess what?
That’s another item off the checklist.