The real issue is not the statues

Published 7:46 pm Tuesday, September 26, 2017

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It hasn’t taken long for the courthouse Confederate statue debates across Virginia to become quieter. A Virginia law protecting statues is open to interpretation, and local government attorneys have pretty consistently given their Boards of Supervisors and City Councils an interpretation that does indeed favor the statues.

And I am confident that Boards of Supervisors and City Councils across the commonwealth are grateful to their attorneys for the political cover that such an opinion provides. If you can’t remove the statue, what’s to discuss?

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Actually, plenty. If the debate over the statues is allowed to rest solely on a legal opinion that they cannot be removed, then Virginians will have missed one more important opportunity to have a mature discussion of an issue critical to our society in 2017, because this is not about statues. It is about the residual effects of racism in our nation and the belief by a sizeable percentage of our population that the statues were erected to reinforce a segregated South during an age that emerged more than a century ago and that we know as Jim Crow.

Whether the statues that stand in front of Virginia courthouses were, in fact, erected solely to honor Civil War dead or to celebrate a “risen” South in which white people were once again fully in charge, the reality of Jim Crow laws, the harm they did to people both black and white and the re-emergence today of overt racism are subjects that we can ill afford to ignore.

Those who do not believe that racism is now openly espoused in our country need only look to the events in Charlottesville. Whether you agree that the statue of Robert E. Lee should be removed or not, that was a decision reached by the elected Charlottesville City Council, a decision which is now under court review to determine just what Virginia law does have to say.

It was a local decision and that’s where it should have remained, but it became a rallying point for white supremacists who saw in the decision a means of bringing more racists out of the shadows.

The statue debate that began before Charlottesville and has continued since then, has been regrettably shallow. Statue supporters cloak their support in what has become a mantra: “You can’t change history.” That view is accompanied by another much-overused phrase — “politically correct.” A politically correct interpretation of something is quiet often one that you simply disagree with. Thus, those who support the courthouse bronzes say the cause for the erection of the statues was totally innocent. They were purchased simply to honor soldiers who were killed during the Civil War.

Those who wish to have the statues removed take the view that they were put in place as purely political statements to help keep local blacks “in their place” as segregation laws came into being.

As with most simplistic arguments, both sides have a point and —up to a point — both have history on their side. A bit of both was involved.

The fact is, you can change history, or at least the way history is taught. During the early decades of the 20th century, the horrible history of slavery was reshaped in southern minds as a genteel — and gentle — world in which blacks and white were co-dependent on one another and generally happy in that state of affairs. Slavery, of course, was nothing like that, but that was the South that was taught in Virginia schools well into the second half of the last century. It was the height of “political correctness” and was not to be questioned. For all too many, it remains so.

Isle of Wight and Surry have been blessed with reasonable, rational community leaders, black and white, over the years, and the more violent manifestations of Jim Crow laws and the civil rights movement that upended them were avoided here. But that does not mean race relations have been or are today what they should be.

Particularly at a time when white supremacists are determined to see their views become mainstream in America, it is incumbent upon us to work with each other across racial lines, to embrace each other as fellow travelers on the same road.

It is, indeed, not about statues. It’s about what we are and what we want our children and our grandchildren to be.