Morality and Law
The Statue Removal Polemics in the US: How to Debate History without Erasing It

The debate about the removal of statues has become one of the most fascinating aspects of the ongoing Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the United States. This debate encapsulates many of the current symbolic tensions in transforming America’s nationhood, with one side of society calling for drastic changes to the way in which the US self-narrates. While BLM previously focused on denouncing police violence, its vanguard and other small activist groups now call for a broader ideological “cleansing” that ranges from toppling statues to purging universities and media which do not comply to the new thinking. 

Toppling statues is nothing new: Ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire regularly witnessed the destruction, defacing, and mutilation of their statues, and this trend continues to the present day, with each change of regime in a country bringing with it a change in the symbols reflected in the public space. Post-communist states have been dealing with statuary politics for the last three decades—note, for instance, Ukraine, which since 2015 has been trying to decommunize and de-Sovietize its public space. 

In the US, there are still about 1,000 monuments, mostly in Georgia, Virginia, or North Carolina, that celebrate Confederate heroes, and 80 counties or cities, about 100 public schools, and ten military bases named after them. Fighting over symbols of the Civil War and the civil rights movements goes back a long way, and the trend of removing Confederate flags from official buildings has accelerated these last years, even before today’s memory debate. 

But after George Floyd’s death and tens of thousands of protesters in the streets, the polemics have taken a new turn, and the statue component of it is only part of the story. More broadly, a part of society is asking for a total rethinking of the role of “Whites” in the country’s history and culture. The racialization of the debate ranges fromsuggestions to write
“black” with a capital B, to demonizing “Whites” for every social problem, as well as the Trump presidency. 

As it has been shown, charges of White racism are mostly deployed by progressive “White” elites rather than by ethnic minorities themselves. Thispush for a new ideological purity has been denounced by several intellectual figures, seeing in it a “new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity”. For some, this new form of ideological intolerance as formulated by those at the vanguard of the BLM movement even reminds one of the worst excesses of the Soviet realityof the uniformity of thought.

In the US today, most of the toppling of statues were not decided by the authorities but, instead,merely initiated by activist groups whose representativeness is questionable. Videos of the removals often show relatively small groups of people (often leftist groups calling themselves Antifa, a term that is used as a catch-allrather than to refer to a specific organization).Are these groups representative? It is difficult to say. Several polls show just how much American society is divided on the issue of statues: Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll recorded 58% as wanting the statues to remain, and 42% to be removed; butQuinnipiac University calculated 52% in favor of removal, and 44% for keeping them.  As with almost every other contentious issue—such as gun control, abortion, and climate change—American society is ultra-polarized, with two groups with opposite views each forming about 45% of the population, and a smallminority in the middle whose views are either indeterminate or shifting.

In view of these considerations, there are fourth key points to make. 

First, one needs to dissociate the statuary polemics from the polemics around the name of Confederate heroes given to institutions. Statues in a public space express a moment of history—a memory of forebearers. For many citizens passing them by every day, these statues have no other identity than to be a part of the urban landscape and are not seen as promoting an ideological agenda. Moreover, some Confederate monuments are very neutral in their design and, without any context, they do not celebrate a racist ideology. But for another part of society, they constitute a painful reminder of the segregation era and should have been toppled a long time ago during the civil rights movement. Things are different forinstitutions: naming an institution after someone, on the contrary, expressessome kind of endorsement of the values carried by that person—and, in that case, debating the legitimacy of a name given to an institution makes sense.

Second, even when statues come with an explicit ideological message—when they reference the “rightness” of the Confederate cause—should they be removed? In theory, the agora, the public space, is open to conflicting interpretations of citizenry: ideological plurality, rather than uniformity of thought, should be the prevailing norm. This is, or should be,an even greater point of emphasis for the US,as the famous First Amendment celebrates freedom of speech, whereas in many European countries, as well as in Russia, there are legal limits for expressing racist, denialistand/or extremist values. If Americans want to change their definition of freedom of speech to follow a more European/Russian model in which expressing racism is legally punishable, it would mean modifying the Constitution.

Third, if some statues should be removed and institutions renamed, this should be done through a broad and inclusive dialogue rather thanthrough the unilateral toppling of statues by non-representative groups. There are many concerted ways to do so, such as creating municipal commissions of representatives of civil society that decide for or against a particular removal, moving statues to a museum or changing the plaques of the statues to explain how the figure was responsible for slaveryand/or segregation, or creating a counterpoint statue that would celebrate all those who fought against slavery and segregation.   

Fourth, the debate has grown to reach not only the Confederate symbols but also the pioneers and colonials who established the first American settlements: Christopher Columbus’ statue in Baltimore got top led, too, and there are now debates around removing statues of the Founding Fathers, such as George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. If those figures are seen as illegitimate, too, the whole history of the United States should be condemned as being, in essence, a history of colonization. Native Americans were indeed the first to suffer from domination and extermination even before the slave trade reached the New World. If that reading is to become the new mainstream, what form would the new US nation-building take? How do we erect a collective understanding of national history that makes every citizen feel part of the community? The racialization of the debate about “Whiteness” as being responsible for every ill will not constitute a consensual cornerstone to craft a new nationhood. 

I see several conclusions in this context:

Erasing symbols of the past does not erase history. To acknowledge the injustices of the past, one needs a more constructive approach that teaches history rather than deletes it. The fact that there were several ‘mistakes’ made, such as the toppling of the statue of abolitionist Hans Christian Heg in Madison, or the defacing of Gandhi in Washington, DC, showsjust how badly history needs to be taught more effectively in the US.

Developing a counter-statuary movementcommemorating all the victims of slavery, as well as the destruction of the Native Americans, seems to be one of the most promising ways to show the past as a plurality while recognizing legitimate grievances. As for the renaming of buildings, this could be done through commissions that would find, on a case by case basis, the best way torename without erasing, and to offer a nuanced and granular vision of the past. As with every human being, historical figures are complex characters andmay have been courageous heroes in certain ways, and tyrants and oppressors in certain others. 

More importantly, there is no way we can read the past through the lens of today’s values: none of the main historical names of world history, from the Greek philosophers to 18th century Enlightenment figures, as well as many freedom fighters all over the world, would stand in complete harmony with today’s values, particularly with respect to equality between women and men (even more so than in relation to race issues). We cannot tryto see ourselves in the mirror of history: the past cannot look like who we are today.

Last but not least, removing Confederate statues will not resolve the issue of “systemic racism” in the US. The notion of“systemic racism” is problematic because it insists on racism while the real issue is that ofsystemic inequalities. The way large corporations, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley have been masquerading themselves in support of BLM is telling: they are the first to abuse blue-collar workers, many of whom belong to ethnic minorities, and thus to perpetuate social inequalities. 

The deteriorated socioeconomic, educational, and health-related situation of a large part of the Afro-American community is most certainly a product of slavery and segregation. But the solution cannot be found at the level of race: demonizing the “Whites” avoids questioning the distribution of wealth and the reproduction of elites in the US society and will therefore not bring long-term solutions.  

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.