Why Americans are destroying some statues.
A translation of my original article for CNN Greece
Please note that this is a neutral image for this blog as I'm not allowed to use CNN's images. To see videos and images of statues and monuments affected click on the original article.
European cities have significantly more statues and monuments than American cities; those monuments are part of Europeans' culture. But unlike European cities, the cultural importance of statues and monuments in American cities is controversial.
Jake McGraw, a public policy coordinator at the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, talks on CNN Greece about the complicated story of U.S. monuments.
He explains that the existence of those monuments and statues are part of a government movement to beautify American cities at the end of the Civil War between the 19th and 20th century. That period, the country was divided between the North and the South, putting African Americans' rights in uncertainty.
Northern cities built monuments to celebrate the Union's victory but not in big numbers because they didn't want to infuriate the defeated South.
"However, across the South, where the wounds of defeat were still raw and white supremacists had regained political power, thousands of statues went up honoring Confederate soldiers, officers, and politicians," says McGraw. "So a disproportionate number of statues in America, particularly in the South, still honor the leaders of a rebellion against a U.S. government motivated by the cause of slavery."
The U.S. has debated for years the existence of those statues, but the issue never became of national concern. Until, the last five years, people started revolting against the actions of white supremacists, and the issue reached the government's ears. These revolts became part of the emergence of the Black Lives Matter Movement.
According to McGraw, now more than ever, people have risen and are demanding an end to racism. The death of George Floyd inspired a stronger response to the fight for the protection of African Americans' rights, who still make up the biggest percentage of murder victims from the police. The coronavirus pandemic that is still killing thousands of Americans and the increase in unemployment forced people to protest, asking for answers to ongoing problems.
The majority of recent surveys show that most African Americans and white Americans demand the removal of statues and monuments that commemorate a racist past.
"People in other countries probably find it odd that the U.S. has so many public memorials to people who committed treason against it, and why Americans who consider themselves to be patriotic — including the president — are among the most staunchly opposed to removing them. The explanation is that the statues represent racism, and racism was not unique to the Confederacy, nor is it dead," explains McGraw.
McGraw continues by stating that during protests, most of the destroyed statues were military figures of the Confederacy or prominent slaveholders. One of the statues in "danger" is that of Christopher Columbus, who is responsible for the death of thousands of indigenous people. On the same category fall also statues of political figures of the 20th century who held racist views.
But not all statues were vandalized. Mayors and political figures removed some of them not necessarily because they were connected to the Confederacy but because they had racist implications. For example, the statue of Andrew Jackson in the capital of Mississippi, a capital honoring his name is one of them. Andrew Jackson lived many years before the Civil War; he was the 7th president of the United States and an American Revolutionary War hero. However, he was a slave owner and also slaughtered thousands of indigenous people. His statue was also removed from Richmond, Virginia.
The mayor of New York is another example of someone in power deciding to remove a statue, in particular, that one of Theodore Roosevelt outside the Museum of Natural History. Even though Roosevelt had no connection to the discrimination against African Americans, his statue conveys a message of white power. He is pictured on a horse, and on his right and left side, there is an African American and an Indigenous man.
"These statues were not the cause of racism, but a product of it," says McGraw. "So removing them is akin to treating a symptom without curing the disease. However, symptoms can be painful, and these statues and other symbols of racism do create real psychological pain for many Americans, particularly Black Americans."
In addition to the removal of the statues, the U.S. needs reform in policing, and the education system explains McGraw. He says that those who support the presence of the statues have political reasons, not historical. McGraw continues to explain that the state of Mississippi has only one statue of an African American, even though more African Americans than white Americans reside in the state.
"If statues were about preserving our history, then they’ve ignored almost all of it," says McGraw.
He emphasizes that some statues have written propaganda claiming that the secession was not about slavery. However, Mississippi's secession ordinance from 1861 begins, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.”
However, McGraw remains optimistic.
"Our future is one that is majority non-white. Young people of all races are organizing and flooding the streets to declare that they will not continue the racist systems that were created by previous generations. There will be many people who want to hold on to what they have, who feel threatened by change, but the momentum and the numbers are with America’s young generation," concludes McGraw.
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