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.

 

 

Three Steps to Racial Healing: Reveal | REFLECT | Recalibrate

“Truth is revealed by removing things that stand in its light, an art not unlike sculpture, in which the artist creates not by building, but by hacking away.”

Alan Watts, British philosopher

IMG_3382Step Two:  Reflect

Being by the water is peaceful for me. That is the place where I do my most serious thinking. Over the last few years, I have thought a lot about race and racism in America. Have you?

When you sit back and  reflect, you sometimes realize how much you take at face value. A quick example: One often hears statistics about the disproportionate number of African-Americans in prison in the US. In 2017: 33% of those imprisoned were black, yet blacks represented only 12% of the adult American population. Why the overrepresentation?

  • Do you think black people are more criminal than whites?
  • Do you sympathetically/empathetically/paternalistically believe African-Americans have had a hard life in America and therefore commit more crimes to survive?

OR

  • Do you think there may be something systemic that contributes to this disparity?

If the third option has never occurred to you, add Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th” and cartoonist Mark Fiore’s Racist EZ Cash to your viewing list along with adding Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness to your reading list. My point, simply, is that race and racism in America require significant learning (sometimes un-learning) and then reflection if we are trying to get to racial healing.

  • Is it possible that race, and disparate treatment (based on race), may contribute to some disproportionate outcomes we have in America?
  • Is it possible that some of your “truths” were born of prejudice, misinformation or just plain old ignorance? You don’t know what you don’t know, right?

While we can all sit quietly and consider what we’ve read or viewed—and we should do that—I believe there are other ways to jump start the reflection process. Here are two resources that were developed based on deep reflection.

  • Waking Up White by Debby Irving. Irving is a white author who describes her growing understanding of what it means to be white in America, something that she had thought nothing about until well into her adulthood. Her “aha” moments started with understanding who benefited, and who didn’t, from what many feel created America’s middle class, the GI Bill.
  • White Privilege (2018) is a video in the “Putting Racism on the Table” learning series produced by the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers. This segment features noted author, Robin DiAngelo. DiAngelo, who is white, is credited with the term, “white fragility.” In an easy-to-digest way, DiAngelo reveals that white privilege is not about income (the common misconception), but is about power, acceptance, and position in society that is “earned” solely by skin color.

I have been told by many white friends and colleagues that they rarely think about race — theirs or anyone else’s. That revelation had a powerful impact on me, someone who thinks about race every day. So, let’s stop here. The reflection can begin now: When did you know you had a race and what did it mean to you? Your answers might surprise you and be instructive to someone from another race.

Yes, I believe you need a partner for your reflection. No one can walk in another’s shoes. You need a guide, a translator, someone to help you see the world through a lens you don’t have. I urge you to find a thought partner with whom you can be truthful. Have serious conversations about the racial reality of America—the small things and big—and reflect on what you think and why you feel that way; share your thoughts fully and honestly. These conversations, the serious reflection, will bring you to an understanding you cannot reach alone.

margaret mead quoteNow, while I think personal reflection and conversations with a trusted colleague/friend will broaden your understanding and deepen your interpersonal relationships, the critical question remains: How can this country move to societal-level racial healing? Well, first, the obvious: societal change doesn’t happen without the leadership of a person. That person sharing his/her understanding/passion will catalyze a small group whose energy then moves to a larger group, rippling out. The fostering of ideas and understanding among average, everyday people, like you and me, leads to a groundswell of interest and understanding that can lead to change. But we also need the leadership of people at the top, people in power, who want change to occur. In South Africa, for example, F. W. de Klerk, the last president before the end of apartheid, a white man, and Nelson Mandela, the first president after apartheid, a black man, came together to support a process to foster racial healing in their country. This process was intended to recognize the racial wounds that had divided their nation, and then lead to healing and restorative justice. Fully successful? Perhaps not, but a vital collective step for their country was taken. Through a means of revelation and reflection, we can create a growing group of people who understand what has happened in America and why. We don’t have the leadership that South Africa had, at least not yet, but we can, and must, develop a focus on change and be ready when the needed leadership emerges.  Until then, we can still take steps toward racial justice and healing.

* * *

Check back in about a week or so to read Step Three: Recalibrate. In the meantime, please share your thoughts and reflections on race and racism in the comments section.