Confederate monuments be gone, but let’s not mistake symbolism for substance

July 15, 2020

The University of Mississippi – the oldest public university in the state, with a long and ugly history of celebrating and consolidating white supremacy – has moved its Confederate monument from its honored place on campus.  Amen.

Monuments are symbols, and symbols are important.  If they weren’t, elites wouldn’t erect them.  If nothing else, they serve as subliminal reminders to the subservient population of who’s really in charge.

But let’s not kid ourselves.  Important as they are, symbols are not substance.  Removing them makes a powerful statement, but does not in itself change the reality they represent, any more than cops doffing their uniforms makes them any less cops.  It’s the substantive reality that has to change – the savage inequality that so severely disadvantages the vast majority of black, brown, and indigenous people (as well as a growing number of poor whites) in the U.S. and across the globe; the militarized police forces whose principal mission is “to serve and protect” that very inequality; the gross disparities in health care (which is, for more and more people, no care at all); the fawning willingness of government to bail out banks and stuff corporate coffers full of cash while doing next to nothing to help the disproportionately black and brown workers deemed “essential” and as a result that much more subject to Covid-19 infection, suffering, and death; the skyrocketing sheer precariousness of existence for the rapidly growing ranks of poor and near-poor citizens, disproportionately, again, black, brown, and indigenous.  It’s a long, ugly, and, as President Trump might put it, “nasty” list.

Energy for fundamental change is running high right now.  But at the same time, political and economic elites are scrambling in public (and no doubt scheming behind closed doors) to redirect those energies toward superficial and symbolic changes only, changes that will leave the substance of injustice more or less intact, but for a cosmetic adjustment here and there.  We can’t let that happen.  If we do, we might as well let the remaining Confederate monuments stand where they are.

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