Symbols of racism

Where do we draw the line?

Hassan Niazi June 30, 2020
The writer is a lawyer, formerly practising and teaching law in Lahore, and currently based in Singapore. He holds an LLM from New York University where he was a Hauser Global Scholar. He tweets @HNiaziii

In the face of a historic movement against systematic racism in America, the American Museum of Natural History, along with the City of New York, decided to remove the statue of Theodore Roosevelt located outside its entrance. The statue depicted Roosevelt astride his horse riding high over a Native American and an African.

This does not mean Roosevelt is, as they say, ‘cancelled’. His statue is merely being moved to a less public space in the museum’s interior. The decision is a statement against blatant celebrations of racism and colonialism occupying public spaces.

To be sure, opponents of this move will draw comparisons to books and films and question where such censorship will lead. However, I do not think that is an apt comparison. First, because the statue is not being ‘censored’ it is being moved. Second, there is a big difference between a celebration of racism occupying a public space, where people have no choice but to confront it, as opposed to a book or film that can be viewed as a choice. You are unlikely to have a book shoved into your face on the street, but you can’t say the same about a towering statue in a park.

To make this point a bit clearer, consider a letter written to The New York Times by a reader in response to the decision to move Roosevelt’s statue: “We went to the museum often… the principal… as a black man refused to walk past this statue to enter the museum. That principled stance taught a little 11-year-old white girl something about seeing the symbols that teach racism. How monuments like this one, which quite literally elevates a white man over others, indoctrinates us and perpetuates the racist lies we’re taught about American history.”

Statues that celebrate racism and colonialism should not occupy public spaces. If needed, they can always be moved to museums where they can be analysed according to their proper historical context. They should not be glaring down on people from public squares as domineering symbols of a racist past.

Of course, we need to decide which statues need to go. After all, some passionate individuals in America have called for the removal of statues of George Washington and Jefferson because they owned slaves. This is not a reasonable way of approaching this issue. Any mechanism to address which symbols deserve space before the public should be measured, rational, and clear headed.

A reasonable way of determining which statues should be removed is to consider the figure they are celebrating. Statues built to celebrate people whose defining legacy was racism and white supremacy should be removed. For example, any statue of Jefferson Davis, the leader of the Confederate United States, should be removed. Davis can easily be distinguished from Washington and Jefferson. Washington owned slaves but was also one the few individuals at that time who freed them. And most importantly, Washington did not go to war against his own country to uphold slavery as Davis did.

Monuments to Davis, and the Confederate General Robert E Lee, were set up as political symbols built to reinforce the idea of white supremacy; not as chronicles of history like a textbook. They were erected in the early 20th century by groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy because they saw African American rights being expanded throughout America. Their response was to attempt to romanticise a racist past.

Similarly, statues of Christopher Columbus should no longer be proudly displayed in public spaces. Columbus kidnapped and murdered countless indigenous people. He has no other legacy apart from being a coloniser. As the comedian John Oliver described him: “His most famous discovery was a case of getting lost and refusing to ask for directions.”

Some writers have described the removal of statues as an erasure of history. But there is a difference between learning about a racist past and openly celebrating it. It is hard to believe that students in America will stop learning about racism, the civil war, and slavery just because there are no longer statues of Jefferson Davis dominating the public eye. Neither will law students stop learning about those who opposed the civil rights movement and the 13th Amendment.

Recently, one prominent writer in Pakistan opposed the removal of statues by making a variation of the ‘slippery slope’ argument. He asked: where do we draw the line? A question always asked whenever the status quo is challenged. Should the Taj Mahal, he wondered, be torn down because the emperor had views we do not agree with?

No. The Taj Mahal is not a symbol celebrating white supremacy, racism, or colonialism. No more than any building in America which was built by slaves is. The issue is not as black and white as the Taj example tries to make it out to be. As I have already stated, it is monuments built for the purpose of celebrating racism that should be removed.

As for the slippery slope argument, that can be addressed through a fair and open process that solicits public opinion and the opinion of experts on the issue. A public consultation process can be held to decide which statues should be removed. This process could come up with some criteria to balance the historic value of a monument with the idea it conveys. No such process can take place without allowing the public to have a say. These monuments are built using taxpayer money. Why should an African American pay to have a statue of a racist built to occupy public space?

Finally, many people will seek to dismiss this movement as an outcome of a new wave of ‘political correctness’. This is false. Confederate monuments were opposed as symbols of white supremacy by African Americans when they were being built. This is not a new form of resistance, this is a resistance that has been historically silenced. We are just now hearing its voice.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 30th, 2020.

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