With racial violence gripping Charlottesville, Virginia, last month, the nation’s moral conscience was transfixed.
The full scale of hatred on display from white supremacists and neo-Nazis was enough to persuade communities across the country to reconsider the continuing public position of racially insensitive statues, which were at the center of the violence in Virginia.
But America’s race problem runs far deeper than Confederate statues erected to intimidate people of color during the Jim Crow era. And though removing the statues is a necessary step in helping to eradicate racism, it is not enough on its own.
The United States has a long history of inequality, and our history of misunderstanding racism is equally long. We have allowed for a culture that continues to see racism as more of a character flaw than a systemic problem that needs to be eradicated.
If we want to progress past the ugliness of racism, we must take it into our own hands and hold one another accountable for racist and prejudiced mindsets. This includes not only removing Confederate memorials from the public sphere, but also updating the way in which we both teach and portray history in schools, in the media and in our everyday lives.
The end of de jure segregation with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s left many individuals believing that the problem had been solved and that any remaining racism would fade. Yet white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, are alive and well due to our inability to confront the problem head on.
The United States currently has 10 military bases, 109 schools and 718 monuments which are dedicated to or named after Confederate icons. But in light of recent racially-driven events, many cities are calling to have these monuments removed.
Some, including President Donald Trump, argue that removing “beautiful” Confederate monuments is akin to erasing history. But these monuments are not historically important in the way these individuals might believe.
Most Confederate statues were not erected in the years following the Civil War, but years later during the Jim Crow era. The people who erected these monuments were motivated by a desire to maintain oppression and racial domination over black people living in the South.
Choosing to build monuments celebrating individuals who supported inequality and systems of oppression creates space for people to see those mentalities as acceptable — a space that shouldn’t exist in modern America.
But more problematic than monuments that were erected to intimidate people of color are historic views which erase their experiences.
The Eurocentric point of view that permeates our history textbooks also plays a major role in perpetuating distorted perspectives of slavery and the black experience. It’s likely these portrayals come from a place of guilt, rather than hate, but that doesn’t make the perpetuation of false narratives any less deadly.
Unlike other countries, including France, Japan and the United Kingdom, the United States does not have a “standard” history curriculum. Our parents’ generation was taught a very narrow perspective of the Civil War. Books placed an emphasis on states’ rights rather than the immorality of slavery, and almost entirely ignored the African-American perspective. One New York textbook from 1957 referred to the KKK’s mission of racial terrorism as “patriotic.”
Our own generation’s Civil War education also varies from state to state. Though generally improved since the ‘50s, the narrative taught in schools today still often lacks much of the African-American perspective that would help individuals to fully grasp the reality of chattel slavery. Just two years ago, black students in Texas accused publisher McGraw Hill of “erasing slavery” when referring to the Africans brought to America as “workers” instead of slaves.
But the education system is not alone in whitewashing black history. Different forms of media, from films to novels and even to “nonfiction” books, have altered the way in which Americans perceive the history of racism in the United States. Think of “Gone With the Wind,” which, despite being dramatically entertaining, paints the Civil War as an issue of states’ rights and romanticizes slavery.
Of course, the media and education systems of the whole country aren’t going to change overnight. That’s where we come in. Ignoring racism is a privilege ― if someone can simply ignore the effects of discrimination, it’s likely that it doesn’t affect them personally. And ignorance of privilege provides a climate desirable for racism to breed in.
If everyone is raised with a factual historical background, in an environment of accountability, racist behaviors won’t have the same opportunity to culminate as they currently do.
There is no comfortable way to confront someone about racist comments, but sometimes simply saying “You shouldn’t say things like that,” or perhaps providing them an example of why they’re mistaken, will encourage them to think before they speak. Clearly, there is a difference in feeling uncomfortable and actually putting yourself in a dangerous position. But individuals who have to deal with racism everyday don’t just get to stop doing so because it makes them uncomfortable, and neither should you.
Unfortunately, there is no way to control a single person’s mentality, but making the collective decision to confront racist mentalities will deter those ideologies from spreading — and might help more than simply removing a statue.