Should Confederate statues stay or go? The answer is not so black and white
Saturday’s horrific terror attack at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, prompted by the city’s plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, renewed once again the debate over whether such statues dedicated to confederate generals and slaveholders should stay or go. For years, mostly ever since the Charleston church shooting, liberals have insisted that the statues must be taken down. The statues are offensive to African Americans, they argued. Meanwhile, conservatives argued the statues represent a piece of American history, however shameful or hateful that history might be.
For a very long time after the Charleston church massacre, carried out by a white supremacist whose name I will not utter in this commentary, I was on the “conservative” side of the confederate monument debate. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s response, in which she urged the state legislature to bring down the Confederate flag waving outside the statehouse, was sufficient, I thought. But while there is no doubt that the move represented real progress in this country when it came to race issues, it was simply not enough.
This week, just hours after the Charlottesville terror attack took the life of one innocent American and resulted in the deaths of two Virginia State Police officers who were responding to the violence, that reality finally became clear to me. As a white man in America, once again I had become blinded by the very real, everyday struggles of my fellow Americans who just so happen to be black. The “conservative” narrative dictated that “no way, no how” should these statues fall victim to the unreasonable demands of those on the Left who wish to rewrite history.
To my African American friends, and to black Americans across the country whom I have not met, I’m sorry. Truly, I apologize for my ignorance.
What became clear to me in the days following the Charlottesville attack was that, just like with every other issue facing a very divided America today, there lies a reasonable and logical area of compromise. You see, I previously was of the mindset that the issue is quite black and white, no pun intended. Either these statues, which in some cases have stood for more than a century, stay as a regular reminder of our shameful past, or they are torn down. I regret to say that for too long, I didn’t see a middle ground. That changed on Monday.
That’s the day that the mayor of Lexington, Kentucky, not exactly known as a bastion of the progressive left, “accelerated” his plans to relocate a confederate statue that currently resides on the lawn of the old courthouse building in downtown Lexington. According to the mayor’s plan, the statue would not be removed altogether, but moved to a different location outside the city, in a veteran’s cemetery.
Could the solution to this seemingly impossible topic of debate have been that simple all along, I wondered? Indeed, I now argue, it was. And it still is.
If those who say they merely want to keep the statues to preserve the country’s history truly do want to do just that — preserve history — then this should be a no-brainer. The proposed solution would not only benefit those on the Right side of the argument by not tearing down the statues, I would argue that many of those on the Left would also be satisfied, since the statues’ presence in veterans’ cemeteries or historical museums would preserve their significance but not force African Americans to be reminded of their ancestors’ oppressive lifestyles on a daily basis.
If you’re thinking, “OK, but where does this stop?” as President Donald Trump said Tuesday, let me address that legitimate concern.
May I suggest that men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, all of whom owned slaves, accomplished things for which we all are forever grateful. Yes, they owned slaves. But if it weren’t for these brave, selfless individuals, America, as we know it today, might not even exist. In other words, Washington, Jefferson and Madison’s greatest achievements, in my opinion, far outweigh their moral failures of owning slaves.
On the other hand, Gen. Robert E. Lee was not a founding father. He was not a president. He is not particularly remembered today as having accomplished anything that made for a more perfect union. In fact, the polar opposite could be said of the late confederate general.
Even Robert E. Lee’s own great-great grandson acknowledges that his ancestor’s moral values are not worthy of dedicated statues along America’s streets.
“Eventually, someone is going to have to make a decision, and if that’s the local lawmaker, so be it. But we have to be able to have that conversation without all of the hatred and the violence. And if they choose to take those statues down, fine,” Robert E. Lee V told CNN.
In his comments to CNN, Lee added that “maybe it’s appropriate to have them [confederate statues] in museums or to put them in some sort of historical context in that regard.”
To date, I have yet to hear a credible argument against this proposed compromise.
All of that to say, the Republican Party should follow the precedent set by former Gov. Haley after the Charleston shooting, and finally recognize that while these statues might have little effect on white Americans, the message they send to black Americans on a regular basis is that the very dark and tainted period of slavery in our country’s history is not only remembered, but somehow celebrated or cherished.
White America can no longer go on pretending this isn’t an issue. May Republicans, who control the White House, the House of Representatives, the Senate, and a record number of state legislatures and governorships, step up just like Gov. Haley did in the aftermath of the Charleston church shooting, and once and for all put this shameful era of our history behind us.