Statues Shouldn’t be Scapegoats

The Confederate memorial statue in Winston-Salem

The Confederate memorial statue in Winston-Salem

In 2002, conservative Republican Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered that nude statues adorning the Department of Justice be covered up, so that when he gave impromptu TV interviews, people wouldn’t see bare breasts and genitalia over his shoulder. Ashcroft became the “butt” of jokes because of his puritanical censorship of fine art. Today millions of people are demanding the removal of statues for entirely different reasons, and there’s nothing funny about their motives.

Over the past few years our nation has been removing symbols that are perceived by some to be racist. Colleges whose buildings were named for slave owners and white supremacists have since renamed those structures. Local and state governments have taken down Confederate flags. And, statues of Confederate soldiers have been vandalized, torn down, and re-located. The controversy over offensive symbols has intensified as an increasing number of unarmed African Americans have died at the hands of white cops. Suddenly the national conversation has turned from some folks being offended by reminders of past racism, to all folks being horrified by ongoing racism. The problem is that tearing down statues does nothing to end racism.

As I noted in a previous column, my friend Larry Womble and I talked about a lot of issues over the years, including a conversation we had regarding a Confederate statue in front of the old Forsyth County courthouse. Larry remarked to me that he had driven past that statue hundreds of times and never realized that it depicted a Confederate soldier. “It just wasn’t something that was on my radar,” he told me. The fact is, the statue hadn’t been on anybody’s radar for nearly a hundred years, but it was removed anyway because it had become a symbol of unchecked oppression to a new generation living in a time of unchecked brutality. OK, so now the statue is gone. So is Silent Sam in Chapel Hill. So is Jeff Davis in Richmond. So is General Williams Wickham in Richmond. Meanwhile, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (who admitted to once wearing blackface at a party) wants to get rid of all Confederate statues along Monument Avenue. And yet, in spite of flags and namesakes, and statues having been removed, racism is a bigger problem now than ever before. People of color are still unfairly profiled and detained. Police are still using tear gas, pepper spray, and choke holds. Peaceful protests are still hijacked by rioters and looters. White supremacists are still driving their trucks into crowds of African Americans, and posting racist threats on social media. Unarmed black men are still being murdered. So much for tearing down statues.

I have no personal stake in Confederate monuments, so I’m OK with relocating them to appropriate museums and cemeteries. Meanwhile, we need to start erecting statues to honor African American leaders. But if we really want things to change, then we must initiate substantive reforms in policing. We must establish a national registry of abusive cops so that once fired, they can never be hired by another police department or security firm. We must hope that all cities follow the lead of Greensboro Police Chief Brian James who has just outlawed the use of chokeholds. We must demand that local budgets be adjusted to include more social services and an emphasis on educational parity. And we must all get behind the “Justice in Policing Act”, which was introduced by House Democrats last week.

It’s easy for politicians and protestors to get rid of statues, but it’s a lot harder for them to get rid of systematic racism. Given the choice, I’d rather them focus more on the latter, and less on the former.


facebook marketing