On race, forcing ourselves to confront the obvious

About a week ago, a story on page 4 of The Sun about the decision by the Texas State Preservation Board to remove a plaque titled “Children of the Confederacy Creed” caught my attention. It was, of course, just one in a multitude of stories from the last few years about city and state governments (including Baltimore’s) removing monuments related to the Confederacy. But this one stood out for a few reasons.

It was erected in 1959, making it particularly sharp rejoinder to the Civil Rights movement, and its content was unusually direct.

Defenders of the Confederate battle flag that long flew at South Carolina’s capitol could make some tenuous claim that it was a cultural symbol, not a racist one, and the statues that Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh eventually tore down in the middle of the night cloaked their veneration for the Confederate cause in opaque symbols and Latin inscriptions.

But the “Children of the Confederacy Creed,” amid various paeans to the honor, patriotism and heroism of Confederate soldiers, purports to “teach the truths of history (one of the most important of which is, that the war between the states was not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery).”

The other thing that made me take notice was that the person who spearheaded the effort to remove the plaque, Texas state Rep. Eric L. Johnson, a Dallas Democrat, is an old friend. We became close during a summer program in high school and went to college together. I called him this week to congratulate him for earning the Nobel Prize in forcing people to acknowledge the obvious (if there were such a thing, which there should be). I didn’t intend to write about it, partially because of the personal connection and partially because the story is far away from Maryland. But something changed my mind.

Shortly after I left a message at his office, I got a phone call from a Sun reader who said she had written something that she wanted to read to me. “I hope you won’t be offended,” she said, never a good start.

She proceeded to read to me about a page of the most virulently racist sentiments I have ever heard. I won’t describe them in detail — even thinking about what she said feels like coming too close to a hot stove — but to give you a sense, perhaps the least offensive thing she said was that blacks had never actually been enslaved in the United States. The rest was much, much worse. The woman was not angry. She was not cursing. She was unburdening herself of what sounded like a long-held conviction that blacks are something less than human.

Although this woman was expressing it in remarkably stark terms, that sentiment is rarely far from conversations about racial minorities, whether that’s African Americans or migrants at the Southern border. Sometimes it comes in language we would readily call racist — “lazy,” “violent,” “criminal.” And sometimes it’s gussied up in concern for inner city parental apathy or for children put in harm’s way on the journey to the United States, the subtext of which is that these “others” lack basic human values.

The other side of that coin is a certitude about our own virtue, that we would somehow react differently if the color of our skin carried with it the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. That we would pull ourselves up by the bootstraps if we were born into neighborhoods decimated by segregation with failing schools and no jobs to be found. That amid gang violence the likes of which we cannot comprehend, we would wait patiently for our turn (if it should ever come) in the U.S. immigration process.

That our ancestors fought for a just and noble cause, not in an effort to rip the nation in two to preserve the right to enslave fellow human beings.

Many have questioned whether removing Confederate monuments from the public square accomplishes anything. Aren’t there more substantive problems to address than worrying about some statues and plaques? But it’s about more than symbolism. It’s a reckoning not about what happened in the past but about the attitudes we hold today that dehumanize men and women because of their race.

And that work has a long way to go. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, chairs the preservation board and called its meeting on Jan. 11, with the only substantive item on the agenda the removal of the plaque. There was no debate, no discussion, and no explanation for why, after more than a year of foot dragging, he had finally decided to move forward with the plaque’s removal. Obviously, it had become politically untenable to support something so blatantly racist as the plaque, but that’s a far cry from enlightenment. In Texas, as in Baltimore and scores of other cities and states across the nation, we have confronted the obvious monuments to racism in our midst. Now we need to confront the subtle ones, too.

--Andrew A. Green

Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
41°