At an impasse

As I write this, I’m watching live pictures of a demonstration on the interstate in Atlanta. The Wendy’s restaurant where yet another police-committed homicide occurred last night is on fire. I can’t say I have much sympathy for the Atlanta police at this moment. Two weeks of constant demonstrations over an unjust murder committed by a policeman, and the best way you can think of to get a sleeping Black man out of a drive-thru is to kill him? The current person they’re interviewing (Rayshard Brooks’ family’s attorney) is saying that Black people don’t even know what justice is anymore, and they’re losing hope. Who can blame them?

The impasse(s):

–My annual donation to the UNCF seems insufficient (although they have one of my favorite advertising campaigns of all time: “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” I say this to white kids all the time)

–I feel like I can’t blog until I say something about this situation — what I actually blog about (me + richard armitage) seems trivial

–I think about Black history and politics all the time, and this spring I taught both US History II and Modern World Civ, so I spent a lot of time on it. At the same time, this blog is really about me and I’m not Black and while I agree racism affects everyone, I don’t think the world needs one more “me and my white liberal guilt” post (although I’d have plenty to discharge upon the screen if anyone wanted to read it)

–the images are horrifying but anything I say about that ends up raising the inevitable question of why I haven’t talked about it before. While I have occasionally blogged about the violent moments of Black history here (I developed a minor preoccupation with Emmett Till a few years ago that hasn’t gone away), that’s a fair criticism. It’s not that I’ve been surprised by what’s happened lately, but it certainly has awakened me from a sort of scholarly doze

–I don’t feel qualified to say anything meaningful about the most important pieces of this situation: what Black people in the U.S. are actually suffering from, and have been suffering from, for centuries: white racism

–I feel like Black people need to be the leading voices in this struggle; it’s a problem if Black people are not able to speak or are somehow drowned out

–we do have a fellow fan who’s African American but she hasn’t blogged in quite a while

–I want to use my privileged position to support the struggle of African Americans (and all of us in the U.S.) to live up to the promise of equality and equal protection before the law.

My main feeling when I watch all this: grief, and anger. Grief for the country the US has become, and anger that we allow it to persist and that nothing changes. For anyone who, like me, watched the aftermath of the L.A. riots of 1992 with their fists pressed against their mouths, it feels like we have become powerless to make any changes to the world. Our lives are just one periodic, intermittent cycle of televised violence.

So here’s my statement: Black Lives Matter. We have to stop the police killing of Black people and their general, ongoing oppression at our hands (educational disadvantagement, redlining, job discrimination, inter alia). Every citizen must not only be entitled to, but also receive in practice, the full protection of the laws. If not, the Constitution is meaningless.

There are probably two pieces that it’s okay for me to speak about, at least briefly — Amy Cooper, and the attacks on and removal of monuments glorifying the Confederacy (and now, other European achievements).

I. Amy Cooper

Amy Cooper was the woman who used the politically correct terminology (African American) even as she threatened to call down a world of hurt on a Black man who asked her to leash her dog in a bird-watching area of Central Park.

I was horrified when I watched this and I don’t think I was alone in that. The thing that particularly got me was the way that she started acting when she called 911. This was a rational decision to make a racially-colored threat that she knew would provoke a certain response from the dispatcher, and in support of that she used all of her “feminine” tools, putting on a whining, crying tone. I’d like to say there was calculation involved, but it all happened so fast that it appeared instinctual: she knew just which moves she had to make to generate the response she wanted to get.

To me and a lot of other watchers in the academy, the fact that a well-educated, upper middle-class white woman who’d surely had the benefit of all of the unconscious bias training available would still revert to this kind of behavior when challenged about her failure to leash her dog (I mean — really? Is that worth a call to 911?) drew into question the significance of everything we do to try to make our students aware of the history of racial relations and the evils of racism. This is someone who presumably knows what’s right and wrong. And yet, in the end, what she presumably knew didn’t matter — or even powered her reaction to the man who confronted her, Christian Cooper (no relation).

I really want to thank Mr. Cooper for holding up this mirror of ourselves to white women. This can’t have been easy. (I understand his sister was involved in the decision to post it, so thanks to her as well.) We obviously need it.

I would never say I am not racist or don’t see race. I mean, I’m not in sympathy with the KKK but not fomenting a race war seems like a really low bar to set for “not being a racist.” I know I do see race, and I knew that well before I took my first class in how not to discriminate against people on the basis of race, when I started as a teaching assistant in the fall of 1994. To get into more of that would be to verge on the “my liberal guilt” territory that I’m avoiding for now. But obviously, we white women have huge blind spots (something underlined by JK Rowling’s frightening outburst this week as well) and that must include me.

It’s hard for me to put myself into Amy Cooper’s situation despite our commonalities (I would never own a dog, but if I did, I would certainly leash the dog in public where required — I know what it is to be frightened of loose animals). I really hope my instinctual response to a situation in which i was in the wrong would not be to defend my mistakes with a racist deflection. It seems a lot like a simple “I’m sorry, I’ll leash my dog” or “I’m sorry, I’ll leave this part of the park” would have completely averted the need for this discussion (no matter Amy Cooper’s inner racism).

Maybe that’s step one for people like me: making sure when we’re clearly in the wrong that we’re not somehow using our white privilege to justify it to other people — or to actively harm them.

G-d. I’m still horrified, weeks later.

II. Monument iconoclasm

I taught public history last fall and we spent a lot of time on the issue of Confederate monuments. The vast, vast majority of them were constructed in the Jim Crow era, although partially because there was a ban on monuments glorifying the Confederacy in the immediate post-Civil War period. Many of them were partially or full paid for by a group called the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which still exists. The UDC often took over the job of financing these monuments after veterans’ groups and other organizations had failed — they are thus the result of the most active possible Lost Cause militancy. It’s also important to note that they were never a locus of broad social consensus — Black southerners always objected to them. From their very inception, they have been a source of rancor and their persistence into the present is primarily a symptom of racial inequalities, not of general love for the monuments.

So I find the argument that removing or destroying these monuments is tantamount to “erasing history” specious. The question I would ask first is “whose history?” Admittedly, I’m a Northerner. I’ve lived in Florida and Texas (I used to walk past Jim Crow-era Confederacy monuments every morning on my way to my office while at Texas; they were removed in 2017, thank heavens) and I always found them alienating. It’s fairly clear that most Black people did not see them as a part of their history that they wanted to preserve or glorify. Virtually all historians and preservationists would agree: we can’t save all of history and we shouldn’t. Public historical preservation serves the needs of the public, and really, the U.S. public doesn’t need Jim Crow-era Confederate monuments, except maybe in museums. I actively resent that public moneys are spent maintaining them — or that U.S. Army installations are named after Confederate Army generals who were in point of fact acting treasonably. I don’t want any one of my students to emulate Robert E. Lee. I find those examples repellent.

But after I read someone in “our” Twitter stream defending all monuments, I somewhat feel the need to counter that. First, the destruction and removal of some monuments is an ongoing, normal development that occurs in all societies. They’re expensive to maintain and if they lose meaning to people, they disappear and that’s not a problem. It’s not that the past is unimportant — but at the same time, we need space for our own memorialization. Do you really know the name of everyone buried or memorialized in Westminster Abbey? Do they all need to be there? Would you miss one of them? Would you even notice if they moved someone out?

Second, and probably more importantly, the active destruction of monuments is an important process in social and political change. There’s a reason that all monuments to Adolf Hitler were removed after WWII; there’s a reason that the U.S. military toppled the monument to Saddam Hussein in 2003 (even if it was a stupid war and one I did not support). This is not erasure — no one living in Germany is at risk of forgetting Hitler just because there are no more streets or plazas named after him. As any German of a certain age will tell you (hopefully not so often, these days), Hitler built the Autobahn and the Autobahn is not going away, nor any of the dozens or hundreds of buildings built in the horrible Nazi style. No Iraqi will forget Saadam Hussein, not for generations. And the fact that we don’t honor Confederate generals in public isn’t going to make anyone in the U.S. forget the Civil War, or erase the stain of either slavery or the Confederacy from our history.

What removing these monuments does do is say: the Confederacy (and the slavery that was its raison d’être, and the unnecessary mass slaughter of the U.S. Civil War) is not a part of our history that we wish to honor or glorify in any way. We do not want to dirty our military or our civil society with its commemoration or conservation; love of this catastrophe is not a devotion we wish to pass on to our children. The Confederacy is not who we are, nor does it play any role in what we aspire to be.

Take them down. It can’t happen quickly enough for me. Jim Crow is over and they’ve been there too long already.

~ by Servetus on June 14, 2020.

12 Responses to “At an impasse”

  1. Yours is a voice of reason. Unfortunately a rare thing these days it seems. I am baffled by what is going on in America right now. The Dutch always say we are so openminded, well trust me, we’re not. But never as openly and violently as America. Thank Goodness. I have had my share of Racism and so have my children but they have learned to deal with that. And they will not let it change their own believes. Others will not decide what we believe to be true. Every person deserves respect. And history is a lesson to be learned. Stay safe and stay healthy Servetus. You are in my thoughts

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sorry that your family has experienced racism. It’s definitely not exclusively an American problem. I hope Atlanta is still there this morning (haven’t turned on the news yet). Parts of LA never recovered from 1992.


  2. I support your statement. I went on a Black Lives Matter march yesterday, in my city, with thousands of others, amidst placards saying, ‘Enough is Enough’ and came back to the news that Rayshard Brooks had been murdered by police. He was shot for resisting arrest. That is the worth of a human life.
    Your comment that black people should be the leading voices in this struggle strikes a chord with my thinking. I was watching news footage last week of the Edward Colston statue being pulled down in Bristol and rolled through the streets by predominately white hands. It made me uncomfortable and in two minds. Yes, it was great that there was outrage by the white protesters there but I had this niggle somehow that it wasn’t their right to pull it down. I don’t know. I suppose it just good that it has been toppled. These emblems of power are potent .


    • I think for me the issue with the statues coming down via white hands is that once again it’s white people deciding what the agenda is — and then we can all feel good b/c that awful statue is gone, even though institutional racism persists. So I’m all for pulling down troublesome statues (and I would even go further than that — we can pull them all down) but only if it doesn’t end up obscuring the real problems, which the statues are only a symptom / symbol of.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A thoughtful and appreciated post. Thank you for writing it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Merci pour nous faire partager votre expertise.
    Ecrivez ce qui vous tient à coeur! C’est la solution. Tout texte écrit dans le but de faire plaisir ou par obligation ne peut-être qu’un crève coeur pour vous..
    Mais vos textes humoristiques me mandent énormément.


    • Things are so horrible here right now that it’s probably hard to comprehend. It’s just really not the time for a joke. Or, frankly, for me to air how guilty I feel about the state of affairs. It’s white guilt that’s a huge piece of the problem — we need to quit feeling guilty and start acting (in support of our Black friends and neighbors).


      • Vous agissez déjà depuis très longtemps, pas à pas, pas de manière spectaculaire mais en faisant un travail de base fondamental, ici (blogs) et ailleurs: à l’université. Toute votre carrière de professeur a été et est toujours consacrée aux grandes causes, et la condition des personnes de couleur en est une.
        La culpabilité est un sentiment qui montre que vous êtes consciente de la tâche qui vous incombe.
        J’éprouve souvent ce type de déchirement et d’interrogation personnelles.
        C’est dans nos actions minuscules répétées , sans fin, tous les jours que nous pouvons retrouver espoir. Un travail laborieux, épuisant dont nous ne connaîtrons pas toujours les effets bénéfiques. Les satisfactions immédiates surviennent quand nous conseillons les victimes directement, pas lorsque nous donnons cette tâche aux autres. Mais il faut déléguer croire en autrui.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Turns out I’ll be teaching American National Government in the second summer session — to all white students. So I guess we’ll see if I can live up to the responsibility.


          • Great that you will have a new job in the second summer session. Tke care! Have great time for you and father during your “holidays”.
            To speak about your different presidents would be a great challenge…

            Liked by 1 person

            • Yes, although this class is more about the structure of the government, the Constitution, and the additional forces on politics (parties, media, NGOs, etc.) than it is about the presidents as people. Inevitably a few of them peak in, but the goal is more for the students to develop an understanding of how government works in order to help them in their professional lives.


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