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The battle over Confederate statues, explained

Confederate statues have always been about white supremacy. That’s why they’re coming down.

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The statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

America’s latest conflict about race began with a mass shooting, a flag, and some statues.

In Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacist protesters descended onto the city earlier in August to protest the city’s plan to take down Confederate monuments, particularly the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The city responded to the protests on Wednesday by covering the monuments with a black tarp.

In Lexington, Kentucky, Mayor Jim Gray responded to the Charlottesville protests by speeding up his own city’s plans to tear down Confederate monuments. In Durham, North Carolina, protesters in August pulled down a statue dedicated to Confederate soldiers. Baltimore took down its Confederate monuments literally overnight as well.

Why does America suddenly care so much about these old pieces of metal and stone?

The current battle actually goes back to a mass shooting in 2015, when self-described white supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people in a predominantly black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof drew a lot of attention for posing with the Confederate flag in images that came out after the shooting — and that helped spur a fight within South Carolina about whether it should take down a Confederate flag that had flown at the state capitol for years. The state eventually agreed to officially take down the flag (after it was unofficially taken down by activist Bree Newsome).

Since then, many cities and states, particularly in the South, have been questioning their own Confederate symbols. The argument is simple: The Confederacy fought to maintain slavery and white supremacy in the United States, and that isn’t something that the country should honor or commemorate in any way.

Critics argue, however, that these monuments are really about Southern pride, not commemorating a pro-slavery rebellion movement. They argue that trying to take down the Confederate symbols works to erase part of American history.

President Donald Trump invoked such an argument in response to Charlottesville: “This week, it is Robert E. Lee and, this week, Stonewall Jackson. Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” He later reiterated these arguments on Twitter, calling it “foolish” to take down Confederate monuments.

This is where the debate gets complicated, raising important questions about the US and its history: What exactly did the Confederacy stand for? And if it stood for slavery, does honoring it in effect commemorate white supremacy?

The historical record is actually pretty clear: The Confederacy was always about white supremacy, and so are the monuments dedicated to it. Much of America is now coming to terms with that — but not without a passionate, sometimes violent reaction from those who argue the statues are necessary symbols of white heritage and culture.

Cities and states have been working to take down their Confederate monuments

Since South Carolina took down its Confederate flag, several cities and states around the country have been considering similar moves — not just for flags, but also for the statues and other monuments all over the South honoring the Confederacy and its soldiers. There are a lot of these monuments out there: The Southern Poverty Law Center’s study found at least 1,500 “Confederate place names and other symbols in public spaces,” and it acknowledged that its count was “far from comprehensive.”

Before Charlottesville, the most high-profile move came earlier this year, when New Orleans finished tearing down four Confederate monuments. One of the statues was erected in 1891 to celebrate a deadly insurgency in 1874 — led by the white supremacist Crescent City White League — against an integrated police force and state militia. The others honored Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, all of whom betrayed the US and fought against the union during the Civil War to preserve slavery.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu passionately defended the move in a speech. “They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for,” he said. “They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.”

This drew a huge backlash. Mississippi state Rep. Karl Oliver, a Republican, wrote in a now-deleted Facebook post that people tearing down Confederate monuments “should be LYNCHED” — invoking language that’s obviously attached to the oppression of black Americans:

The destruction of these monuments, erected in the loving memory of our family and fellow Southern Americans, is both heinous and horrific. If the, and I use this term extremely loosely, "leadership" of Louisiana wishes to, in a Nazi-ish fashion, burn books or destroy historical monuments of OUR HISTORY, they should be LYNCHED! Let it be known, I will do all in my power to prevent this from happening in our State.

Oliver later apologized for the horrible choice of words, but he stood by his intent to preserve “all historical monuments.”

Similarly, Charlottesville has been working to remove two Confederate statues — one dedicated to Robert E. Lee, and another dedicated to Stonewall Jackson. Already, the city renamed the parks where these statues were located — Jackson Park is now Justice Park and Lee Park is now Emancipation Park. And the city council voted to tear down the Robert E. Lee statue, although those plans are currently on hold as a court reviews whether the city can do so without the state’s permission.

The plan to tear down the Robert E. Lee statue led to the white supremacist protests. Their protest mainly took place at Emancipation Park, where they rallied around the statue for much of their demonstrations. As they see it, attempts to take down the statue are erasing white history; one of their slogans — “you will not replace us” — is meant to suggest that lawmakers can’t do this and get away with it.

Of course, many people disagree that this is about erasing white history. They argue that these monuments were built originally to honor the Confederacy and the racism and white supremacy that it stood for. One of the statues in New Orleans, for example, literally celebrated a white supremacist insurgency in the city against a racially integrated police force and state militia.

In fact, most of these Confederate monuments were built during the Jim Crow era and in response to the civil rights movement — a sign that they were meant to explicitly represent white supremacy in the South:

Southern Poverty Law Center

Given that America is now trying to make amends for the racist policies of its past, it seems natural that the monuments that celebrated this horrific past come down.

It’s also not the case that this history is being erased, since the statues, flags, and other monuments aren’t necessarily being destroyed. They’re often, as was the case in South Carolina and potentially New Orleans, moved to museums or, as is the plan in Charlottesville, sold to someone else to take care of them.

The Confederacy was a bastion of white supremacy and slavery

At the center of this debate is what the Civil War was really about. The people who defend these Confederate monuments frequently argue it was really about states’ rights, while those on the other side argue that the Civil War was about slavery.

But the historical record makes it very clear that the Civil War was about slavery. And to the extent it was about states’ rights at all, it was about a state’s right to maintain slavery.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates noted in the Atlantic, South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union, said in its official statement that it saw any attempts to abolish slavery and grant rights to black Americans as “hostile to the South” and “destructive of its beliefs and safety”:

A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction. This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

In a letter encouraging Texas to secede and join the Confederate States, Louisiana Commissioner George Williamson was even more explicit. He argued that the Confederacy was needed “to preserve the blessings of African slavery” and that the Confederate states “are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery.”

Many other states made similar arguments, consistently pointing to slavery and white supremacy, in their cases for secession.

These statements leave no doubt that the South fought in the Civil War to protect the institutions of white supremacy and, in particular, slavery.

In fact, Confederate symbolism, particularly the flag, only reemerged in US culture as a backlash to the rise of the civil rights movement.

As historian John Coski wrote in The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem and Libby Nelson explained for Vox, use of the flag surged after Southern universities, stock car racers, and social groups embraced it in the 1950s as a symbol of white and Southern culture.

It was no coincidence that this happened as the civil rights movement rose — and, in particular, after President Harry Truman vowed to do more to promote civil rights by, for example, integrating the military and telling the NAACP that civil rights could not wait. The Ku Klux Klan, for one, grew in response, and it embraced the Confederate flag as a potent symbol.

Southerners were clear at the time about what they were doing and what the Confederate flag stood for: “It means the Southern cause,” Roy Harris, the legendary Georgia politician, said in 1951, according to Coski. “It is becoming … the symbol of the white race and the cause of the white people.”

Since then, the Confederacy’s purpose has been obfuscated in attempts to whitewash an ugly period of US history, framing the Confederate flag and monuments more as symbols of white heritage and states’ rights rather than explicit symbols of racism. And the flag has in some ways become a dog whistle — another example of the sneaky language public officials use to wink to the public about racism while claiming its use as a point of heritage.

But the fact that white supremacists, including literal neo-Nazis, are marching onto cities like Charlottesville to defend Confederate monuments shows that this isn’t just some innocent quest to preserve history; there’s a clear racist interest behind much of this too.

America is going through a “whitelash”

Underlying the battle over Confederate statues is really a bigger debate about race in America. Over the past few years, we have seen a greater push for racial justice. That’s led to pushback from the other side — what some commentators have described as a “whitelash.”

Black Lives Matter in particular gave a lot of attention to these issues. Although the movement gained national fame through its efforts to call attention to racial disparities in police use of force (particularly in the Ferguson, Missouri, protests over the police shooting of Michael Brown), it’s fostered a bigger conversation, especially among the left side of the political spectrum, about the many ways in which minority Americans are systemically disadvantaged. As America becomes more and more racially diverse, this discussion will likely become an even bigger issue.

Meanwhile, the election of President Donald Trump arguably symbolizes the backlash to much of this conversation. Trump, who constantly deployed racist, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim rhetoric on the campaign trail, gave a voice to white Americans who have long felt that the rise of civil rights and diversity has left them behind.

Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist and author of Strangers in Their Own Land, provided an apt analogy for many white Americans’ feeling of neglect: As they see it, they are all in this line toward a hill with prosperity at the top. But over the past few years, globalization and income stagnation have caused the line to stop moving. And from their perspective, other groups — black and brown Americans, women — are now cutting in the line, because they’re getting new (and more equal) opportunities through new anti-discrimination laws and policies like affirmative action.

Another way of understanding this is a sociological concept called “white fragility.” Robin DiAngelo, who studies race at Westfield State University, described the phenomenon in a 2011 paper:

White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.

DiAngelo’s paper explained that white Americans have a range of “triggers” that can make them defensive about race, from suggestions that a person’s viewpoint is racialized to the rise of people of color into prominent leadership positions. All the triggers she listed were present in the past year — through the presidency of Barack Obama, Trump’s racist rhetoric, and Black Lives Matter protests against the dominance of white privilege.

Consider how often throughout the 2016 election people would respond to even the slightest suggestion of racism, whether in media or everyday life, with immediate vitriol, disdain, or dismissal. This, DiAngelo argued, is a defense mechanism to confronting questions about privilege. And it makes it difficult to have a reasonable conversation about race, effectively perpetuating a status quo favorable to white Americans by averting discussions about how to change the existing circumstances.

DiAngelo offered a telling example, from an anti-racism training session she facilitated:

One of the white participants left the session and went back to her desk, upset at receiving (what appeared to the training team as) sensitive and diplomatic feedback on how some of her statements had impacted several people of color in the room. At break, several other white participants approached us (the trainers) and reported that they had talked to the woman at her desk, and she was very upset that her statements had been challenged. They wanted to alert us to the fact that she literally “might be having a heart-attack.” Upon questioning from us, they clarified that they meant this literally. These co-workers were sincere in their fear that the young woman might actually physically die as a result of the feedback. Of course, when news of the woman’s potentially fatal condition reached the rest of the participant group, all attention was immediately focused back onto her and away from the impact she had had on the people of color.

This illustrates just how defensive people can get in the face of accusations of racism: Not only did the woman who faced the criticisms genuinely feel like she was having a heart attack, but the white people around her believed it was totally possible she was. This is the reality of trying to have a conversation that challenges white privilege in America.

You can apply this concept to what we saw in the Charlottesville protests. Many of the people involved have likely led advantaged lives — just because they’re white men in a society that has historically given them more rights than everyone else.

But they’ve seen their racial security challenged. They saw the first black president with Barack Obama. They see demographic statistics that show white Americans will no longer be the majority in the coming decades. They see all of this talk about Black Lives Matter and the importance of diversity, including through policies like affirmative action. They see recent moves to tear down Confederate monuments in the South. And they themselves have likely been accused of racism at some point in their lives, making them defensive and angry.

These are the forces behind the current discussion about Confederate monuments and race in America. Many white Americans feel like they’ve been neglected, and now their history is being erased as Confederate monuments come down and the country becomes more diverse. So some have taken up radical measures, causing violence and chaos in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest plans to tear down a statue.

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