There’s been so much written over the past 48 hours about the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia that I feel as if we are suffering from a flood of thoughts and opinions. That’s not a bad thing, per se. People should take time and space to process these kinds of events, to respond to them with their experiences and beliefs, and engage in meaningful dialogue about how to stop this sort of senseless terrorism from happening again.
But because so much of the content produced by Black women has been largely drowned out by the flood of media, I’m not going to attempt to rehash any of the myriad arguments around the role of whiteness in causing this confrontation, the boiling racial tensions that culminated in the election of President Trump, or the president’s obstinate refusal to decisively and unilaterally condemn neo-Nazis and the KKK. I’m not going to take words out of these writers’ mouths about the role of white allies in this struggle either. After all, these authors know far better than I the consequences of being Black in a country that treasures their suppression and encodes it in its very artistic and sociopolitical DNA ― and the best ways to counter that.
Instead, I want to focus on the consequences and symbolic reality of taking down Confederate statues across the country ― and why we can’t simply stop there if we want to change things permanently.
Back in 2015, activist Bree Newsome removed the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse, sparking a nationwide conversation on the role of the iconography of the Civil War in America (something that Black activists had been discussing for about as long as Confederate flags were flown, it should be noted). The resulting firestorm culminated in the removal of many flags from government buildings and other publicly owned spaces as a kind of atonement.
Clearly, the long-term consequences of this action have been minimal. Even the Confederate flag debate was subject to infinite articles, conversations and protests on both sides of the issue. White people did not take the removal of these flags well at all. The Confederate flag, for many white people, was simply a piece of fabric, representative of some abstract time painted in contrasting, broad strokes. For Black Americans and their openly racist white counterparts, the flag was indicative of an era of ritualized lynchings, systematic subjugation, and political and social disenfranchisement. The difference between the two groups, of course, was that one wanted to reject that past and the other wanted to reignite it.
As the election of President Trump has emboldened anti-Semitic actions around the country and more racially motivated hate crimes, neo-Nazis and their allies have moved from the shadows into the light ― the tiki torch light, to be more exact. No longer afraid of ramifications, these men and women marched with a chilling boldness through the streets demanding what was never theirs to begin with be given back to them. This, combined with the terrorist attack at Friday’s protest resulting in over a dozen injuries and the death of Heather Heyer, galvanized people into taking action.
So far, that action seems to be a concerted effort to remove emblems of the Confederacy ― mostly in the form of statues ― all throughout the United States. Symbolically, this is a meaningful gesture. Removing these statues and placing them in a context appropriate to their historical creation ― one that sends the clear message that the Confederacy and what it stood for was morally abhorrent ― will help to visually move the era into the past. But realistically speaking, it does little. The ideology that allowed these statues to stand for a century or more will still persist. The stone forms may be destroyed, but the belief system that acted as an invisible scaffolding supporting their weight will remain intact, rendering them ever present.
If the removal of these statues is going to be different than what happened in 2015 with the Confederate flags, two things have to change. First, there needs to be a concerted, purposeful effort to remove these symbols. It must be systematic and widespread. There cannot be any iconography deemed “special” or “different” that is allowed to stand. If one goes, so should all of them. And secondly, there needs to be a concerted effort to come to terms with how the effects of the Civil War are laid bare in our present day. That effort needs to come, it should be said, from white people, who have hoarded the beneficial effects of supremacy with little consequence. It needs to be interpersonal, beginning on a one to one level ― and it needs to be consistent and long term as well. Only then will we begin to shift the paradigm. If we fail, Charlottesville will be only the latest in a long line of terrorist attacks carried out by those who believe they still have a chance at resurrecting the dead.