For centuries, present generations have had a complicated relationship with history. The United States has a history of success, progress and development, but the achievements of the nation are colored by a past of troubled mistakes– colonization, slavery, economic suppression, rampant sexism and many, many more. The impacts remain extraordinarily prevalent in our daily lives today. We have an obligation to take responsibility for the atrocities, and to utilize history most effectively in order to educate our future generations to prevent them from making the same mistakes. However, people have long disagreed on how to celebrate the achievements of our nation while recognizing and apologizing for the mistakes of the past. In order to effectively learn from the mistakes of our predecessors, we must critically examine our history, remove celebrations of figures who no longer align with our values as a country and retell our history in a way that highlights both the achievements as well as the grave mistakes that our previous leaders made.
One example of the heated debate on the present’s relationship with history is the issue of the naming of buildings on college campuses. As can be expected, institutions of higher education have histories of discrimination, perpetuating existing power structures and questionable moral decisions. It can also be expected, those who were in power at universities had very different political and ethical views than higher education institutes are expected to have now. Yet, celebrations of their reigns remain widespread on campuses– academic buildings, dining halls, residence halls, all adorning their names.
On the University of Southern California’s campus, one of the landmark buildings on campus is a red brick building, centered around a tower with a globe on top, that can be seen from miles off campus. This building is named after Rufus B. Von KleinSmid, and students fondly refer to the building as VKC. Most students who take classes every single day in this building do not know the history of Mr. Von KleinSmid, a known and prominent eugenicist. He was a former USC President, and according to Professor George Sanchez, who created a timeline of racism at USC, “In 1945, he refused to send transcripts to colleges enrolling Japanese-American citizens who were released from internment camps. Not only did he work to prevent these students from getting an education, but he also sent them to the camps in 1942, according to the same source.” He was one of the founders of a eugenics society called the Human Betterment Society, and allegedly held up an informal quota system that allowed one Jew to enroll at USC per year.
Since then, students have rallied behind the cause of changing the name of the building, arguing that the celebration of such a figure is not reflective of the values of the university. Undergraduate Student Government senators brought a proposal to the administration, and they circulated a petition amongst students to build their case. So far, the proposal has not been taken seriously by the administration and there are no plans in place to change the building name.
Opponents not only say that there are bigger battles to fight, but also that we must celebrate the achievements of those who built these communities, regardless of whatever ethical differences they may have had. Opponents also say that we must take their historical context into consideration when criticizing their political and ethical views.
However, having buildings named on campus for these figures, without any historical context, celebrates not just their achievements, but also all the harmful acts that they committed during their lives and their presidencies. When it is very clear that Von KleinSmid would not have wanted a majority of the students who now attend the university, it is tone deaf and harmful to continually celebrate the man. To remember the achievements of Von KleinSmid while recognizing the harm that he inflicted onto minorities would be one thing. However, allowing students to walk in and out of the building every day, mentioning his name in passing, without any insight into the truly troubling history of a USC president, can leave a lasting impact on students of color who already can feel like their presence is not welcome on a higher-education institution.
Regardless of whether Von KleinSmid held these views at a time where they were more acceptable or not, the values of a university must be reflected in the people it reveres and the image that it puts forth. Since the times of Von KleinSmid’s presidency, USC’s values have changed, and regardless of his contribution to the university, the correct vision for the future must be displayed. Most people would agree that celebrating a eugenicist is not what USC’s vision for the future should be. To place a statue of Von KleinSmid in a museum, with information about both his time at USC, but also proper context about the extremely harmful views he held, would allow a more complete picture to be painted.
A similar controversy arises when considering whether or not to take down Confederate statues. Especially in the South, monuments and civil war memorials celebrating the Confederation and its heroes are as incredibly common. Robert E. Lee and his counterparts are widely praised, and seen as his heroes and champions for the Southern identity. In 2017, one of the biggest white supremacist and alt-right rallies was held in Charlottesville, to protest the removal of a confederate statue.
The narrative of the civil war is often portrayed as a fight over broader issues, when it is widely decreed by historians that it can be tied directly to one issue: slavery. Stephen Sawchuk, in Education Weekly, wrote, “Some of those [omissions in classrooms] have roots in the continued prevalence of “Lost Cause” thinking. The term refers to a discourse that views the Civil War as a fight over states’ rights or culture, omitting what nearly all historians agree was the prime cause of the war: slavery. Most of the Confederate monuments now under debate were erected between 1880 and 1940 as Lost Cause mythology flourished, and as Jim Crow laws undid the Reconstruction’s promise of a racially integrated America.”
To claim that removing monuments is erasure of history, when a holistic and comprehensive history of the civil war is already not being taught, is deeply ironic. To claim that Robert E. Lee and the other confederate heroes were primarily fighting for other causes and not to maintain their right to own slaves is not a different view of history, but simply a falsehood. And this falsehood has deeply ingrained effects on African-Americans today.
When the effects of disenfranchisement, economic inequality and social stratification during the Jim Crow Era, can still be seen, these monuments are a slap in the face to African-Americans. An article in the Jacksonville Free Press, drew direct comparisons between the Jim Crow laws and the mass incarceration of African-Americans today. Mgbolu wrote, “Americans with criminal records face with the daily fear of being stopped and frisked by officers, the anxiety that the prison door can reopen repeatedly – not for committing a crime, but for simply missing an appointment with a parole officer or failing to pay a court fee. While Jim Crow deliberately disenfranchised blacks through literacy tests, today we openly deny exfelons the right to participate in the democratic process. Voting rights have yet to be formerly restored for all second-class citizens in America.”
Additionally, an article in the Huffington Post, that regardless of their enforceability, many Jim Crow laws are still in state legislature, and have not been removed. Hutchinson writes, “Alabama, and nearly ten other states keep Jim Crow laws on their books. Not all the states are in the South, and despite public embarrassment, and repeated demands to cleanse the books of them, state legislators, and even voters have resisted taking any action. While the laws are unenforceable, they aren’t laughable, antique relics of a long buried racial past. They insult and degrade, and have had and still have a corrosive effect on law and public policy. In Georgia teachers that taught at once segregated private schools are eligible to collect state pensions, and as far as we know many of them are.” These laws include everything from school officials being allowed to close integrated, limiting the number of African-American officials at schools and statutes that establish “Negro schools.”
To deem racism as a thing of the past is laughable. When there are statues and flags celebrating the very people that institutionalized racism and put in places the laws that continue to create insurmountable challenges for African-Americans, we must examine what kind of country we want to be moving towards.
One argument against removing Confederate statues is that it is part of Southern identity and pride. Tasha Pilpot, who wrote a book, Conservative but Not Republican, about African-American party identification, argues that “Southern identity” was undeniably centered around slavery. She wrote in Vox, “It was under the guise of ‘states’ rights’ that the South sought to preserve institutionalized segregation post-slavery and throughout the civil rights movement. Federally enforced desegregation became such a sticking point in the South — which at the time was dominated by the Democratic Party — that it eventually led to the demise of the New Deal coalition.”
When a sense of pride is derived quite directly from marginalizing a minority group, it cannot and should not be deemed acceptable. As Steve Clowney said, in a letter to editor to the Wall Street Journal, “Monuments are never about recording a nuanced and objective version of the past. Rather, monuments are works of art erected by powerful people to communicate messages about who deserves honor. For years, Southern whites have used sculptures on public lands to insist that soldiers in the army, raised to defend the principle of white supremacy, deserve praise.”
This fight to keep confederate statues is fundamentally tied to maintaining power structures of white supremacy. The people that attended the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville and the messages they were conveying, were a perfect example of the racial tensions that cannot be separated from “Southern pride.” The shock that the country felt when people revealed their true political beliefs was an indication that the majority of the country did not feel the same. The profile and beliefs of the people who showed up to defend confederate statues should be an indication that these statues should in fact be taken down.
The other argument against removing these statues is that we must take into account their historical context when criticizing their beliefs. In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Tony Woodlief wrote, “Most people seem to need this debate to be more simple. Not only Ivy League professors and descendants of Confederate veterans, but also those who should know better. Maybe Americans’ deep-rooted Puritanism drives them to view every person as either glorified or damned. And so we spiral down this Stalinist path of history-flattening and monument-erasure, one side waving a battle flag that Robert E. Lee himself renounced, the other insisting that every man who wore gray was little different than Leonardo DiCaprio’s caricature in ‘Django Unchained.’ Americans long ago abandoned Lincoln’s admonition — malice toward none, charity for all — and in some important ways the U.S. is less united today than in 1866.”
This argument simply doesn’t explain why we shouldn’t hold our historical figures to high standards. If we are unable to criticize leading eugenicists and generals who fought an entire war to maintain their right to own slaves, then who are we able to criticize? Instead of trying to focus on these white males consistently in positions of powers who should be “excused” because of history, why not celebrate those who fought the fight to make these beliefs unacceptable in our society. Instead of spending time defending the actions of these people and discerning right from wrong, these monuments should celebrate the battles and achievements of women and minorities who have long been forgotten from history books, statues and celebration.
This is not to say that these statues should be removed, and forgotten. It is equally important that citizens learn about the harm that they cause, so they know not to repeat the same mistakes. Museums, classrooms, libraries with the proper historical context is the right place to showcase these historical artifacts– not in a public park with no information or recognition of the atrocities that these men caused.
It is commonly said that history is written by the winners, and it goes beyond just stories and history books. People in power have always decided who should be honored and who should be the hero. To keep these statues and other historical monuments and symbols, such as the confederate flag, because they have historical significance is suppression of historically oppressed voices. If we truly want to change the culture and values of our country, we must be amenable to recognizing our mistakes. Taking down these statues, renaming buildings and critically examining history is a recognition of mistakes, and a call to action for the future. By doing so, we make this country a more inclusive place for oppressed citizens.
These statues go far beyond political correctness and history. They signify existing hierarchies of power and the values that a country holds close and views as guiding principles for the future. They impact the stories that we tell and how we tell those stories. If critics think it is just about a physical monument or erasing history, they are gravely mistaken. This is an issue of collective identity, memory and reforming our country to progress in a positive direction.