Treating the Symptoms Rather than the Illness

In August 12, 2017 Charlottesville became a hashtag. Not for some UVa related event, but for a protest that ended in violence and in the death of Heather Heyer. The protest was centered around the proposed removal of the Robert E. Lee statue and it engulfed the nation in the long-standing conversation about the fate of Confederate monuments.

Violent white supremacists carried their pride and fear on their faces, in their arms with guns, and in their malicious acts over the two-day long event. Counter protesters came out to show their disapproval of these white nationalists groups, and the streets of Charlottesville looked a lot like my hometown of Berkeley, California; it was filled with anger and revolutionary energy. However, the statues, while without question were and are magnets for hate groups, are simply a symptom and a symbol of a deeper more complicated issue in our Nation: the 400 year old culture of white supremacy and oppression of people of color. Removing these statues is indeed symbolic, but what does it actually do? What happens when they all fall?

On the surface, swiftly removing these icons of hate and bigotry, the very magnets that drew in the hate groups to protest, represents the public’s outrage on a national stage. These monuments mean a lot, to a lot of different people. Their removal represents a symbolic victory over the vestiges of the brutal Jim Crow system of segregation and violence.

However, history shows that you can’t legislate respect. Taking down monuments will not necessarily decrease white supremacy. Confederate statues create landscapes that remind us of our racist past and present. By their very being, these monuments endorse white supremacist ideas.  While there are reasons to take down symbols of hatred, we should not expect too much from their removal. Once these statues come down, those same hate groups will remain, as they have for centuries.

The real work lies in the long-term. White supremacist ideology is firmly baked into our nation. It is manifest in everything from the blanket Eurocentric curriculum found in almost every school– kindergarten through college– to these very statues that we speak of. It takes hours to knock down a statue. It takes generations to breakdown white supremacist ideology.

Most Americans are conditioned to treat symptoms rather than the illness, and these statues are just symptoms of white supremacy. We need honest and mediated dialogue between each other, across racial, economic, and political lines. This illness won’t disappear without the tireless work of our collective citizens. This is not an easy task, and frankly we may never fully succeed.

This isn’t to say that the motivation and performance of removing these symbols of oppression will go uncelebrated. Surely this moment in history is significant and will move the conversation forward in some ways. But, how do we combat white supremacist ideologies, the intangible force that creates a culture of oppressions, fear, and violence? The same large-scale energy and dedication seen in this movement needs to address and combat the more nuanced and complicated manifestations of this ideology as it relates to poverty, lack of educational equity, housing inequalities, vocational disparities, etc.

We cannot become blinded by the momentary excitement of this movement. These icons represent one of the biggest social problems in our nation, but they are not the problem themselves. There is much hard work ahead, and it is easy to react and galvanize in moments like these, but how will we act afterwards? What will you do after the monuments fall?

Dr. Kelley Fanto Deetz, Ph.D., Research Associate James River Institute for Archaeology, Founding Director The Shared History Project

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