So I was out at whataburger today when started thinking about white supremacy, as I am want to do. It’s specifically about the whole debate around Confederate statues so someone else has probably already made this point but I just wanted to write it out somewhere so I can stop thinking about it. It’ll probably be a rambling mess but whatever.
When it comes to commemorating historical figures the question shouldn’t be “did this person own slaves?” but “is this person’s legacy tied to the defense and maintenance of slavery, colonialism and white supremacy?” In regards to the Confederacy the answer is yes and monuments to it should be taken down. But in regards to something like UC Berkeley- named after the philosopher George Berkeley, who owned the Whitehall plantation in Rhode Island- the answer would probably be no. I mention Berkeley because in the wake of protests over this issue erupted on that campus conservatives used Berkeley as a justification as to why they thought protesters were wrong in their position. It’s the same sort of reasoning that Trump brought up fearing that after once we got rid of Confederate statues what’s to stop us from destroying monuments to the founding fathers?
This brings up the issue of how we sort through history. It’s easy to try to separate history into good or bad, to keep the good and condemn the bad when it’s easiest or ignore it when it’s not. But the difficult truth of the matter is that the good and bad of history coexisted and often the bad was closely tied to the good. The point of recognizing the complexity of history isn’t to condemn the entirety of the past as bad because of the terrible things in it. It’s to understand who and what we commemorate and for what reasons.
Defenses of Confederate monuments will read as defenses of white supremacy to those for and against white supremacy. A defense of Berkeley and the school named after him would most likely be based on his contributions to philosophy although the fact that he owned slaves should still be taken into account for one very important reason- white supremacists can use his ties to white supremacy for their own benefit.
One of the tactics of white supremacist groups is that they do what most moderate liberals and conservatives don’t- they acknowledge these historical figures’ ties to white supremacy in order to position themselves as defenders of western culture, regardless of how their views come into conflict with those who’s legacies they’re claiming to defend. They take advantage of the simplistic view of history that most people hold in order to convince people of the validity of their views.
To take the example of the founders, where the moderate would disregard their ties to white supremacy, more progressive and leftist types would want to confront that aspect of their legacy and how it shaped the development of American society and politics which would probably lead to push-back from moderates as un-american, as it goes against the nationalistic rhetoric they’re used to. At this point the white supremacist would come in condemning the progressive leftists, agreeing with the moderate that they’re right in their praise the founding fathers and then go on to tell them that the leftist are just anti-white racists and attempt to show the moderate that the accomplishments of the founders was tied to their whiteness and that the same was true of all notable white people.
Where leftist and many nonwhite people would see that we need to confront the past in order to learn from it and move beyond the prejudices of those that came before us, white supremacists see a history that should be replicated. And so long as people hold this simplistic view of history where the negative and positive aspects are completely separate and the negative can be ignored where ever possible, they’ll be susceptible to white supremacist rhetoric. That’s all I got, thank you for listening to my TED talk.