As a nation, Americans continue to hit the snooze button on much-needed conversations about race and the legacies of slavery.
The alarm went off on August 11 and 12 in Charlottesville, Virginia, when groups of neo-Nazis and white nationalists brought their message of white supremacy and anti-Semitism to the streets.
These groups had chosen Charlottesville for their rally because the city council had voted to remove its statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. This decision reflected a growing pressure on southern cities to reflect on the overt celebration of the Confederacy in public spaces. Those opposed to removal argue that these are benign commemorations and that removing them would erase an important part of the nation’s history. But without context, these statues don’t tell history, they hold it hostage.
In the early 20th century, cities used public commemoration as another way of reminding residents that the hierarchy of white over black remained in place. In Virginia alone, there are 223 Confederate statues. In Alexandria, a northern Virginia city covering 15 square miles, there are 30 streets named for Confederate generals and officers. More than 200 public schools in Virginia are named for Confederate generals. Two of the largest high schools, Lee and J.E.B. Stuart, were built after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and named in defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court’s desegregation order. These are not commemorations of the Confederacy in the aftermath of a devastating war, but instead a use of history to reconfirm white supremacy at times of racial tension.
Removing the statues and renaming schools doesn’t change the events of history. Placing some of the monuments in a contextualized environment, like a museum, would allow people to learn the history of the Confederacy, without having to confront state-sanctioned racial hierarchies on their daily commutes. In 2017, it is well past time for Americans to get up and rise to the challenge of addressing race and the legacies of slavery.