History will be the judge of today’s political environment, whatever the subject: the pandemic, Trump, or racial equality. I don’t think the the first two topics will be treated favorably. I’m hopeful that the third – racial equality – will be seen as a sea change to the betterment of society. I’m hopeful the movement results in a more perfect union.
Racial inequality is a tragic fact of today’s life in the United States. Whether it be policing, health care, income, employment, education, or the myriad of other issues in which our brothers and sisters of color have been treated unfairly (and too often, lethally), we have problems. Serious ones. And all have their root in the inexcusable sin of slavery.
To be sure, we’ve made progress. Slavery is gone. Crucially important legislation has brought needed improvements. But true racial equality is a journey, and as a country, we won’t reach our destination in my lifetime. Change is incremental. Improvements are critical.
Groups, protesters, and governmental entities are rightly re-evaluating public displays of our sad history of slavery and the resulting Civil War that put an end to that inexcusable and immoral practice. Why would we, as an educated society, continue to honor (and maintain in public spaces) those who fought in a failed effort to permit people to be enslaved? Statues aren’t history. Statues of historical figures are a governmentally-sanctioned and -supported effort to praise the ideals of the subject of the statue.
What ideals are there to praise with Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and their cohorts? They led a war in which over a million people died – by combat, disease, starvation. For what? To insure that a society in which human beings could be owned by other human beings. The only “states’ right” that was at stake was slavery.
But do we throw the baby out with the bathwater? Should we also topple statues of any leader who was complicit in slavery? Any leader who made mistakes, even tragic ones? I don’t think so. Should we judge past leaders by our values of today? If that were the test, no statue would remain.
I think a simple test should be: Why are we honoring any given person? We’re not honoring George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or other founders, because they were traitors to the United States. By public statues, we are honoring traitors who took up arms against our country. The sole reason we have statues of Robert E. Lee is because he was a traitor. The reason we honor George Washington and other founders is because of their efforts in favor of the United States, despite their tragic flaws.
Let’s distinguish between praise of leadership and history. History must be taught, unvarnished. We should teach that Washington was a great leader to establish independence, but that he also had slaves. We should teach the Civil War, slavery. We should teach that Lee was a traitor, but contributed to military strategy, and is an important historical figure. History, though, is not taught through street names or statues.
But please, let’s keep the Washington Monument.