Confederate statues and the day of reckoning … from symbolism to substance

Earlier this month, in Richmond, cce3a16c-4ae1-46ae-b447-003f2caaa949Virginia, the statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, was toppled. It had stood on Monument Avenue since 1907. Virginia’s governor had already announced he would remove the 60-foot tall statue of Robert E. Lee, the figurative centerpiece of this avenue dedicated to Confederate leaders. But as evidenced by the messages written on that statue over the last few weeks, the Governor’s announcement was too little, too late for those protesting the brutal murder of George Floyd and championing what is beginning to be fully understood: Black Lives Matter.

Any child of the South, as I am, knows the statues weren’t only to celebrate the leadership of the Confederacy. The statues were to celebrate white supremacy. Most of these icons were erected between the late 1800s and the early 1900s. They were intended to underscore that the South may have lost the war, but in other ways, they had won. The sentiments of the South—the true belief of most white leaders across America at the time — was that white supremacy/leadership would not be threatened by the mere act of ending slavery. That message was delivered powerfully through legislation and actions — Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and the prominence of the Ku Klux Klan — along with the construction of these massive statues.

Now, roughly a century after that period in history, citizens are calling for a reckoning. The Jim Crow laws, lynchings and prominence of white supremacy have been largely camouflaged in modern times, as Michelle Alexander revealed in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Policies and practices to maintain the predominance of white rule, white privilege, white supremacy have been prettied up, as my Dad used to say. Look carefully though, and you can see where and how institutions and systems routinely give white people advantages over black people.

Map of the Confederate Statues in America. Southern Poverty Law Center, 2019
Map of Confederate statues in US, Southern Poverty Law Center, 2019

But you don’t have to delve deeply for symbols of the Confederacy. Confederate statues are abundant. Confederate flags are flown proudly across the country, even included in the Mississippi state flag. The image is displayed on bumper stickers and incorporated into clothing.  The statues and Confederate memorabilia were/are intended as a reminder of the underpinnings of the Old South and that the South — at least its philosophy on race — could rise again.  But, today, in many quarters, even that iconography is beginning to be relegated to the past.

In 1945, after World War II, the Allies banned all symbols of the Nazi regime. Flags were destroyed. Statues were taken down. Displaying the swastika was declared a crime. Nazis deemed criminals were sought, arrested and tried at Nuremberg. Everything that celebrated Hitler and his thinking disappeared from Germany. There was clarity. The philosophy of white Aryan superiority might continue to live in the psyches of some Germans. But, there would be no public venues created to celebrate what the government saw as the most shameful time in its nation’s history.

When an end to apartheid came to South Africa, there were trials—truth and reconciliation. The oppressed and the oppressor were brought together to acknowledge the pain and try to move the country to heal.

In the (re)United States, not only were there no real punishments* for the South after the war, the sentiments of the South seemed to shape the post-war values of the entire country. The government of America has never addressed the racial core of the Civil War. That’s the crux of the issue:  America has never come to terms with slavery as this country’s original sin nor has it recognized the ongoing subjugation of black people.

Maybe until now.

Today, we, the people, are proclaiming it is time for that day of reckoning. The tearing down of these statues is a beginning, moving the country from the symbolic dismantling of the Confederacy to substance: an examination and re-calibration of all the elements of America: health care, education, housing laws and practices, banking and business, the judicial system, and so much more. All that underpins how America operates and ensures the advantaging of one race over another must change.

The dictionary says that the day of reckoning is “the time when one is called on to account for one’s actions, to pay one’s debts, or to fulfill one’s promises or obligations.” That sounds right to me.

 

*Note: The forty acres promised to formerly enslaved people to start their new lives was to come from 400,000 acres confiscated from Southern landowners by the federal government. That would have constituted a punishment, maybe even the beginning of reparations, but that land was ultimately returned to the original owners.

 

 

Apologies are good, but what about redress? What about reparations?

A few weeks ago, I visited the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian complex here in Washington, DC where I live. I’m not sure what drew me to the museum that day, but while there, I happened upon ‘Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II.’ The exhibit had opened last year on the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, signed by FDR two months after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. By this act, over 100,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans living in the United States were placed in prison camps across the country. Hard stop. Reflect.

Another piece of American history about people of color seldom explored at any depth in our American history classes. If it were, maybe fewer of my friends would have almost gasped when I mentioned reparations for the Japanese. I knew about the internment camps, but I had never heard about reparations. In 1988 President Reagan signed legislation offering a formal apology (one for slavery wasn’t issued until 2008) to those who were interned along with a $20,000/person payment of compensation.

unbalanced --

Forty acres and a mule,” the promise made to slaves following the end of the Civil War immediately came to mind as I read the exhibit materials on reparations. I had heard about that promise all of my life. I knew it didn’t happen, but didn’t know what HAD happened.

It started when Union General William T. Sherman met with African-American leaders following the end of the Civil War. Those newly freed men said land ownership was crucial to sustainability in their new freedom. Sherman agreed. Via Special Field Order No. 15, on behalf of the federal government, he promised the freed blacks forty acres from land confiscated from the Confederacy, particularly in Georgia and South Carolina. The settlers also were offered Army mules. One year later, even though families had settled this land, President Andrew Johnson returned all the property to the former landowners.  Again — Hard stop. Reflect.

That’s where it all began. The racial wealth gap… and so much more.

Not only had the slaves built the wealth of those landowners—of the country—they were now denied a fundamental means – land ownership – to establish their own wealth.

I can remember my father, the owner of a small real estate company, repeatedly telling me about owning property. He saw the value of land ownership, its importance. He would say, “You can live on it, borrow against it or rent it out.” In reality, home ownership has been the manner in which most Americans have gained assets—wealth — as the value of their property rose and as they handed it down, generation to generation. When you look at the failure of the US government to provide the promised forty acres against the fact that according to the US Census Bureau, black families are more likely than any other race to live in poverty, you see a correlation. At least I do.

That decision not to honor forty acres and a mule set the stage for the wealth divide.

A report that came out a couple of years ago noted that it will take 228 years for African-American families to amass the wealth that white families have today. Just a few years less than the number of years that Africans were enslaved (1619 to 1864). I had read that report and tried to digest the weightiness of knowing—228 years to gain parity with a current statistic— while the wealth disparity continues to rise out of reach.

So, when I learned the Japanese, a much smaller community in America than African-Americans, with the length of internment much shorter than slavery, had received amends, my first thought was “What about us?” I do not begrudge those who were interned compensation for what they had lost in revenue, possessions, their sense of self-worth and faith in America. They were due.

So are we.

Are black families due reparations?

Yes.