But wait, you say. It can’t be that simple.
As Jamelle Bouie wrote, "Implicit in every defense of Confederate monuments is a belief that black people aren't full and equal members of the polity."
Here’s why: Imagine what that Confederate monument says to a Black person. Imagine the message it sends to a Black child playing in a park under that shadow of a man sitting astride a rearing horse, a man who is there because he fought to preserve his ability to own her ancestors as human livestock. That Confederate general is being honored for that treason in defense of slavery by every person who allows that statue to stand. How do you think that child feels, seeing that general honored and all the other people in the park permitting that? What emotion flows through her mind and into her small body as she plays in that shadow amidst that crowd of people?
See what you did there? Assuming you are not a Black child reading this right now, you used your creative imagination, the faculty that makes empathy possible, to experience the emotion of someone with a vastly different life experience and perspective. Did you get it exactly right? No. And that’s okay. That doesn’t make you hateful. It means you’re human. You stretched your empathy muscles and lifted as much of that weight as you could.
Now that you have as much of a sense of that stranger's feeling as you can muster, what do you do with that information?
You could say, “Holy crap! That’s really painful. There is no possible justification for doing that to a child. We should remove those from public spaces and either destroy them or put them in history museums with a plaque next to them explaining that they were put up in the 20s and 30s to terrorise Black people.”
Or, you could say, “Okay, but I don’t care as much about a Black person’s feelings as I do about preserving my own feelings about my ‘heritage.’” The implied premise is that your feelings, as someone who is not that Black child, are more important. If you come to this conclusion, you are, in fact, deeply racist. It’s not terminal. Get some help with that. Read some books. Change.
Or you could say, “Well, I can see why that would hurt that Black child, and I don’t like that because I want racial equality, but it would also hurt the feelings of some of my white friends who want the statues to stay up, and they’re on my political team / attend my church / hate liberals like I do / whatever. In fact, some of those white people may even be the descendents of those Confederate generals, and it might hurt their feelings to have their ancestor’s statue removed, so let’s keep the statues up.” If you say that, you’re still saying that white people’s feelings matter more than Black people’s, especially if those white people are on your team. The fact that you have concern for Black people’s feelings but allow that concern to be trumped (pun intended), is the difference between a Nazi and a Nazi collaborator: not much of a difference.
You could also say, “Well, sure, the Black child’s pain is real, but it’s a slippery slope. Are we going to take down every statue that hurts anyone’s feelings? Where would it end?” This argument attempts to hide from its intended effect (preserving racist statues) by dodging to an altogether different argument about preserving the abstraction of history from the predations of sentimentality. But notice when this argument against sentimentality is being employed. It’s not to protect the outcome of broadened insurance coverage from the sentimentality of people’s attachment to their personal physician. It’s not to protect the abstraction of free speech from the sentimental revulsion many feel when their flag isn’t saluted in the way they want others to salute it. The argument that feelings should be ignored is only being employed when those feelings belong to Black people. It’s dismissive and, again, rooted in notions of racial superiority and inferiority.
Or you could say, “Well, I tried to imagine what that Black child felt, and I decided that she wouldn’t really mind.” In this case, you’re saying that a circumstance you would never tolerate if it were about you is tolerable to Black people because that conclusion doesn’t challenge your preconceived outcome. Did you investigate this by reading up on what so many Black people have been writing about these monuments for decades? Nope. You decided for them so the conclusion wouldn’t challenge you. That’s both a failure of empathy and racist.
Now, maybe the failure of empathy is mine. Maybe there’s some other argument for maintaining these monuments that acknowledges their history as physical manifestations of a desire to terrorize Black people, that recognizes the way they make Black people feel, and which still justifies their continued existence. I have yet to hear it, and I doubt such an argument exists, but I’ve been wrong before, I’m sure I’m wrong about some things now, and maybe this is one of them. I challenge anyone who wants to keep these statues up to make such an argument.
But the argument must take into account the targets of these statues, the Black people who were supposed to see them and be afraid or feel insulted or diminished. And the argument must treat those feelings as just as valid as any other white person’s pride in their (racist, treasonous) heritage. Otherwise, any argument for these statues (and every argument I’ve come across) is fundamentally based in the belief that Black people’s feelings don’t count as much as white people’s.
So, yes, everyone I’ve come across so far who argues to keep those statues is, in fact, a racist. If they don’t want to be racist anymore, this is a good opportunity for a wake-up call: Why did they think preserving their “heritage” and “history” mattered more than that Black child’s current pain?
And if you, like me, think that keeping these statues up, knowing what we know now and feeling what we’ve now felt, is a moral abomination, then we need to be honest and vocal about why they have to go. Because refusing to call out white supremacist rhetoric or racist underlying motivations for fear of offending white people’s sensibilities elevates white pain above Black pain, and that’s just as racist. It’s not fun to tell a white person that they are making a racist argument or holding a racist position. But the pain people of color deal with from sustained systematic and institutional racism combined with instances like these of direct, interpersonal racism is far, far worse than some “not fun” conversations. So we have to be bold and honest.
The statues are racist. Trying to preserve them looming over public spaces is racist. People who are participating in those efforts?