Humanizing metal and stone while dehumanizing flesh and bone

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Christopher Columbus statue torn down at Minnesota State Capitol — Tony Webster | Wikimedia Commons

A giant crane looms over a towering medal figure — a man riding horseback mounted onto a stone pedestal. It’s the middle of the summer on the first of July and city workers of Richmond, Virginia work to remove the statue of Stonewall Jackson from Monument Avenue.

The removal of the statue is one among many Confederate statues that have come down either by the government or the people in recent years. Hundreds of these types of statues are still standing through the United States.

Watching how some white people have responded to these statues coming down, either by a government authority or the result of protesters, would give the impression that there is an all-out-war on the history of this nation. From their perspective, the issue of history and ‘heritage’ is the issue, not racial injustice, that deserves attention.

In fact, it is interesting to note that while George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Aumuad Arbery, and Elijah McClain’s deaths were coming into the mainstream media’s awareness, these same statue guardians fell notably quiet.

But as soon as the statues got graffitied or torn down — you bet their social media feeds were blowing up with vitriol. Statues must have feelings, then. Federal courthouses must also have feelings. Why else would they garner so much compassion and care from people?

George Floyd’s murder — nothing

Breonna Taylor’s murder — nothing

Elijah ‘s murder — nothing

Statue coming down — “What an outrage!”

This isn’t a new story. The United States has been down this road for years now.

In 2017, Trump defended white nationalists protesting in Charlottesville. Within days of stating that there were some fine people in the crowd, Trump sent out a series of Twitter posts aimed at defending Confederate statues.

He stated,

“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson — who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!”

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The very fact that insentient objects are defended with such passion and vigor while those who are the targets of racial injustice are not a subject worthy of concern is telling.

This all makes sense when we actually take into consideration the actual history of our country. The conflict the United States had with the Confederacy boils down to who are we going to consider human.

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Slavery, first and foremost, was maintained by pervasive and cyclical white socialization aimed at promoting the dehumanization of Blacks.

One of the key elements of the dehumanization process is to promote indifference in bystanders. In reality, this is the only reasonable way that you can ensure power. You have to stamp out any within-group dissent. You have to normalize power over and make this power omnipresent. This is the very history of racialization in the United States of America.

So in this context, it is no surprise, then that inanimate objects and buildings gather more concern than the deaths of Black people.

Anchors to Whiteness

The most common argument for the Confederate statues' continued existence is that they represent part of Southern ‘heritage.’

Well, Confederate Statues were erected as part of the ‘heritage’ of the south. I believe this to be true but not for the reasons that are told. These statues serve as a reminder that poor and middle-class white people have a heritage to uphold.

And that heritage is simply this: your place in society is to work, fight, and die for the white oligarchs who hold the vast majority of the economic, social, and political power in the community.

This is the heritage of whiteness.

It’s important to remember that the promises of colonialism were really only given to a few white members of society who had inherited, stole, or gained sufficient capital. White members of the highest caste in America have had to confront the uncomfortable reality that their power is only maintained by the unquestioning servitude of the white working class. If not maintained, indentured white servants, white peasants, and Black slaves had the sheer people power to overthrow them. And white and Black working-class members of our society still have considerable power in numbers over the few rich white oligarchs.

At the time of the Civil War, about a quarter of southerners owned slaves. That’s an impressive amount of slaveowners to be sure. But it is also indicative of the social stratification — that the majority of soldiers of the Confederacy were composed mostly of poor, non-slave owning white people. This cannon fodder for rich white supremacy cannot be overstated because it represents the very structure of white supremacy that was developed by wealthy white rich people to maintain economic and political control.

White members of the highest caste in America have had to confront the uncomfortable reality that their power is only maintained by the unquestioning servitude of the white working class. If not maintained, indentured white servants, white peasants, and Black slaves had the sheer people power to overthrow them.

Southern Confederate statues, then, serve as anchors to this system of whiteness. The statues are humanized — they represent those who we should be focused on and concerned about. It is a way of saying — these white folks never questioned why they were going to war to potentially die for the system. You, white folks, shouldn’t either.

Anchors to White Supremacy

Woven within the steel and stone are the ideals of white supremacy. It reminds all people in the community that white people deserve respect and admiration regardless of their actions. These traitor generals are forgiven for the past transgressions because in the end, they carried out their duty to the system.

The statues also serve as a method of dehumanizing people of color and the history of racial injustice. Statues for example of Christopher Columbus, not a Confederate statue of course, still serves as a method of delegitimizing the needs and history of people of color in this country. It is a way of communicating to white people that you are tied to the legacy of these rich, powerful white men so don’t go damaging the system.

The statues also serve as a method of dehumanizing people of color and the history of racial injustice.

These statues simultaneously communicate to BIPOC citizens that they, in fact, don’t matter. At the very least, you matter significantly less. These statues are in parks, community plazas, courthouses, and other government buildings, as a stark reminder of who matters.

If Confederate Statues are about History then They’re Doing a Terrible Job

One of the arguments for keeping the statues is that these statues represent American history. While it is true that the statues depict historical figures, there is little evidence that simply having a statue in a town square or a park is going to inform people of the historical contexts of a said figurehead.

Generally speaking, Americans seem to struggle with their history of the Civil War. In a survey conducted in 2019 concerning American’s knowledge about the Civil War, the Washington Post found:

“A 52 percent majority of Americans know slavery was the main cause of the Civil War, as opposed to 41 percent who blame “another reason.” Younger adults, ages 18 to 29, are more likely to know that slavery was the main cause of the Civil War — 58 percent — compared with 47 percent of people ages 65 and older.”

Most Americans don’t even know that the United States, at the time, was holding onto slavery when a great deal of the Western world was beginning to come to a moral sensibility about slavery. We were lagging way behind. Even the Soviet Union was ahead of the U.S.

Black Lives Matter

The resistance to Black Lives Matter is simple. To recognize the full humanity of Black citizens in our community would require the shedding of white socialization. It would usher into the present a stark acknowledgment of the past.

These statues cannot co-occupy a space where Black Lives Matter!

But are white Americans ready to confront this truth? Many demonstrate they are not. Some white people have been preoccupied with the destruction of property while simultaneously ignoring the harm done to people.

The question we have to ask ourselves is: since when have white people cared about their property?

  • When slaves were considered property did white people care about them?
  • The lands that white people stole from Indigenous tribes, have white people demonstrated being good stewards of the land?

All of sudden, some white people want to get sanctimonious about some Jim Crow-era statues.

Lifting the Best Above Our Heads

Erecting statues upon stone pillars has important metaphorical value. It signifies to those in the community that this person possessed important qualities and values in the times they lived that still has relevance to who we are as a people.

Confederate statues struggle for legitimacy in this context.

Civil rights activist and congressman John Lewis recently died. The country has been in solemn reflection of his legacy. And it is times like these when people, who were legendary, remind us of what is truly great in our country.

It goes without saying that America has a plethora of people presently and historically that are beacons of our values and aspirations. Our parks, schoolyards, courthouses, capitals, and public buildings should be adorned with those who we look up to the most. We should lift up those whose legacy lives in the present and deserve to be mentioned in the future.

The darker parts of our society are not forgotten. They live in the blood of our citizens and the narratives of our past. They should live candidly in our history books and spoken of truthfully in our classrooms. Tear down the statues and myths so we can rebuild an image that represents the true lives of this country.

Dr. Justin D. Henderson is a counseling psychologist, counselor educator, meditation teacher, clinic director, and assistant professor.

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