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Removing Confederate Monuments Needs Work Beyond the Photo-Op

  • June 24, 2020

By: Jeremy Hodess

Following the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, millions have protested to demand reform. These protests have renewed interest in removing Confederate statues and flags from public lands. Both the monuments and the flag are powerful symbols of oppression. Remember that most of these monuments were erected in the Jim Crow era, with a particular surge between 1900-19201. They were part of a campaign to promote white supremacy, and they stand for racism. Some claim that removing these statues is an attempt to erase or deny history. But these monuments do not exist to recognize our history. Statues are erected to honor the individual. In this case, they also promote an ugly ideology, and they should be removed.

Consider, for example, landmarks that help us remember a terrible past. We preserve the concentration camp at Auschwitz to help us remember what occurred there. The Armenian Genocide memorial complex keeps the memory of those victims. We do not erect statues to honor the perpetrators of violence. We maintain memorials to remember the history and the victims.

As the calls for removing monuments grows louder, other naming traditions have come into question. Take Dorsett Road in Maryland Heights. Before last week, I was unaware how Dorsett Road was named. It had no association in my mind, good or bad. I have since learned that Walter Dorsett was a prominent anti-abolitionist who traded slaves in the 1830s. Should we change the name of Dorsett Road? This one is not as clear for me. Was there some malice involved in naming the street (like there was in erecting so many Confederate monuments)? Perhaps ignorance should not be an excuse. However, if few are aware of this man’s past, then perhaps the street name lacks the symbolic power to cause pain. On the other hand, when I see people stridently defending the street name, then it appears to me that it’s becoming a symbol. In that case, renaming demands more attention. I admit I don’t know if that’s right or not.

Lastly, let’s not let monuments and flags divert us from our primary aim: meaningful reform. One danger of these debates is that we and our elected representatives become distracted. I welcome the removal of Confederate monuments. It’s more important to change a criminal justice system that incarcerates black Americans at five times the rate of whites2. NASCAR’s decision to ban the Confederate flag from its events is great. It’s more important that we address the structural obstacles that deny people of color a fair shot at accumulating wealth. I applaud the decision of the City of Creve Coeur to name a park after Phillip Venable, a black ophthalmologist who moved to Creve Coeur in the 1950s. The park used to carry the name of a mayor who seized Dr. Venable’s land when white residents protested the arrival of their new black neighbors. The name change is a step in the right direction. Of course, it’s most important that our cities welcome diversity and ensure equality of access and opportunity now and in the future. So, let’s remove the monuments but not allow policymakers to enjoy the photo op while neglecting to make real change to inequitable systems.

Jeremy Hodess, founder of Capstone Franchise Consulting, is a member of ADL’s Civil Rights Advocacy Project Team