Ten Thoughts on Monuments and Racism in America


1) As humans, our strength has always been in numbers, that is to say, tribes. We are, therefore, inclined towards tribalism.
2) When people incorporate, they can achieve bigger goals (Two minds are better than one). The bigger the tent the better. Diversity is therefore better (if you can make it work), because diversity is always going to be bigger.
3) Ideas grow the tent beyond rudimentary forms of tribalism like race or ethnicity. Religion is good at this. Muhammad, for example, brought fractured, warring tribes in the Middle East under the banner of Islam. Or look at the biggest group in the world, Christianity: "In Christ there is neither man nor woman, Jew nor Gentile," and as King later added, "Black nor white." Another big tent is nationality, which in America is more or less defined by the creed "All men are created equal." This is a banner that enables people of all races, ethnicities, religions, genders, and sexual orientations to identify with "America."
4) This is one reason why both religion and politics have been successful evolutionary vehicles. And I see no reason they can't continue to be as we move forward. I think "America" can do a lot to solve the problem of racism.
5) America is a baby on the world stage. Compared to England, France, China, and India, for example, we are cultural infants. This makes it more difficult to identify what it means exactly to be an American and effectively relate to it.
6) It seems to me that identifying with "America" is largely about accepting her history. America is so young this is difficult to a certain degree even for white men, but it would seem even more difficult for African-Americans and women. Their inclusion in the already young project of defining what it means to be an American is even more recent. Furthermore, much of their place in American history has been marked by oppression and marginalization. My guess is they sometimes struggle to identify with American history because it does not include them and because that history often venerates the people that explicitly denied them that right, not to mention that these forces (racism and misogyny) are still active today. These two points--a history that does not bear their mark and one that venerates their oppressors--make it even more difficult for them to identify with "America" than a white man.
7) I see no way around this problem other than a willingness to part ways with those venerated figures of our past that are exclusively identified with oppression. We cannot add voices to our history. We denied them and that chapter is closed. I see a couple of constructive ways to move forward (To be clear, I'm not talking about the greater problem of racism, just the stand-off over our history and its monuments--though I do think this will do something to help more people identify with being an "American" and therefore feel less divided by race).
8) First, search our past for voices that must be elevated. People like Abigail Adams, Fredrick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to name a few, are not lost on us, but have far more to offer than has been extracted. They need to be taught as American history, not women's history or black history, because they are instrumental in shaping modern America. I am sure this list could be increased exponentially. And doing so is not a meaningless exercise in political correctness and or an appeasing celebration of diversity. It is a practical effort to grow the tent and make America a bigger and better idea. I would also spend money building memorials to Lynching victims and Slavery museums.
9) Certain figures we will have to part ways with. People like Jefferson Davis and John C. Calhoun, nicknamed "John C. Kill a Coon" have no place in the public sphere. History books, museums: yes. Public grounds, no. They are divisive; they literally divide us or shrink the American tent. Robert E. Lee is the most controversial, I suppose. This is largely owed to his character which was, in his day, venerated by both Northerners and Southerners alike. Still, he is divisive because he is the figurehead of the Confederacy, which fought on the side of slavery. If you privately admire the character of Robert E Lee, that is your business, but when we put a statue of him on public grounds that is us as a society endorsing him. This endorsement is not shared by all, and makes it difficult for a large chunk of people to identify with the endorsing body, a body they have equal claim to. We can move the Lee monuments to a Civil War memorial ground or find another creative solution.
10) People like Thomas Jefferson are also lumped into this category. I don't think the comparison is just. In the public mind, Lee is almost entirely identified with the Civil War. Jefferson's career is not monopolized by slavery, though he did own hundreds of slaves. Thomas Jefferson cannot be discarded without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Jefferson's name calls forth a great many accomplishments including religious freedom and the Declaration of Independence, which are so deeply ingrained in what it means to be American that no intelligible idea of "America" can be formed with referencing both. We cannot utter one word about America without mentioning his name, even if that name must be appendixed with facts about his ownership of slaves. Instead we must claim Jefferson's ideas as our own, and hold America and even Jefferson himself to account for them, just as Martin Luther King did in his famous "I Have A Dream" speech: "When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Obviously, I am not saying that Jefferson must be venerated by all. I am simply saying he can't be discarded. However, there are other figures central to our founding that I think are worthy of respect AND do not bring with them Jefferson's baggage: Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, for example. Lincoln too, in a sense, is a Founder of "The" United States (vs these United States) and is also worthy recipient of our respect.
These are just some thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head. What do you think? What would you add/take away?

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