The erasure of history is nothing new. White people erase history every day by denying the role of their own elected policy—from government law-and-order initiatives to their local town permitting processes—in maintaining racial hierarchy in both the North and South. History textbooks themselves too often erase history by claiming the civil war was about “states’ rights”, or presenting the North as an unequivocally “good” assailant against the South’s evil ways. Yet Massachusetts was the first state to legalize slavery, Wall Street began as a slave marketplace, and if the North has been free of slavery since the Revolutionary War, it certainly hasn’t been free of race, which as a concept was invented to legitimize social control. This is less a discussion about erasing history than it is about degrees of failure in creating something that doesn’t demand erasure. What happened in Charlottesville should not feel new, just less easily erased.
Meanwhile, today’s criminal justice system literally erases black individuals—an estimated 2.3 million of them—from sight. It rewrites a racial narrative as a personal one, allowing those in power, in the words of The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander, “to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind”—legitimizing employment and housing discrimination and denying black citizens social services, the right to vote, education, respect, and participation in social and economic life. African-Americans are incarcerated for drug charges at six times the rate of whites, yet there is little difference in drug use rates between the two.
Housing policy erases black lives from white ones by concentrating low-income housing options away from wealthier and whiter areas. Corporate rental models subsist on turnover and eviction. Recently, land contracts, in theory a cheap path to homeownership, have allowed sellers to dump the burden of past repairs and back-taxes on their buyers without any record of a contract. Likewise, our public school system erases young black lives from young white ones: school segregation today is worsening; a recent GAO analysis concluded that schools with high percentages of poor students and students of color offered fewer advanced courses, lower ninth-grade graduation rates, and higher suspension rates. In almost every U.S. metropolitan area, students of color are far more likely to attend impoverished schools than their white counterparts.
If conservatives wish to use the same argument to defend Confederate monuments, they need to answer to decades of erased oppression under the guise of “colorblindness.” It’s worth noting that monuments slated for removal generally aren’t destroyed but moved to a more appropriate location, which would not erase Confederate history but contextualize it. If liberals want to call out conservatives for obscuring the obviously racial nature of Confederate history, they need to answer to the racial impact of Bill Clinton’s crime bill and segregation in the high schools of the most liberal cities.
In a recent letter addressing statue removal, two descendants of Stonewall Jackson wrote, “While we are not ashamed of our great-great-grandfather, we are ashamed to benefit from white supremacy while our black family and friends suffer. We are ashamed of the monument.” It is not enough to be ashamed of a monument. It is also not enough to remove a monument.
Move the statues now or move them later, but expand Medicaid coverage. Health insurance can mean the difference between life and death; what we call a few buildings at Yale does not, in reference to the movement to strip slaveowner John Calhoun’s name from buildings there. Locally, renaming a park or street will mean little next to a new community center, affirmative action programs, low-cost daycare, or public preschool. It is within the power of white suburban families to agree to some form of state-wide bussing program, or a redistribution of property taxes that would better integrate schools. Voting to upend mass incarceration is far more important than voting to remove a statue—and if white people vote only to remove a statue, then we are doing so not out of solidarity or morality but for ourselves. History—not of slavery, but the story we’re writing right now—continues to be erased even as we offer up congratulations.