Opinion

Opinion

RAJ ANDREW GHOSHAL: Durham's statue valorized white supremacy. We can do better

Posted August 19

Editor’s note: Raj Andrew Ghoshal is assistant professor of sociology at Elon University. His research addresses present-day conflicts over race and memory as well as racial segregation in everyday life. Views expressed are his alone, and may not represent Elon University.

As a scholar of commemoration and race, I’ve spent years researching how America remembers slavery, the Civil War, and segregation. As a Midwesterner-turned-Southerner, I’ve spent most of my adult life in North Carolina and Virginia.

This past week, I saw both my adopted homes embroiled in conflict over race and memory.

In Charlottesville, a Nazi sympathizer, resentful that a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee was to be removed, killed an anti-racist demonstrator. Days later, protestors in Durham knocked down a Confederate soldier statue after which Durham County Sheriff Mike Andrews announced plans to press charges against those who had toppled the figure.

In this confrontation over how Americans mark a divisive past, is the sheriff right to go after Durham’s protestors? How should our state deal with this case, and with Confederate memorials more broadly?

A few points are worth considering.

First, the U.S. Constitution is specific: Treason consists “only in levying war against” the United States. Soldiers who took up arms for the Confederacy did so against the United States -- they were traitors to our country."

If the Confederacy had won, we wouldn’t be surprised to see representatives of the Confederate States support their own memorials. But by what right do public officials of the United States use their positions to defend a statue that honors treason?

Second, resources and attention are scarce. Wise governance demands setting priorities. Jaywalking is illegal, but police recognize that crimes like murder and rape warrant far more attention. They wisely do not aggressively pursue every jaywalker.

It is true that Durham’s demonstrators broke a law. So did Martin Luther King. So do millions of Americans when they speed, fail to signal turns or even play bingo for too long at once.

If Durham’s statue case proceeds, how many tens of thousands of tax dollars will be spent on prosecuting a crime with no victim? How many police officers and lawyers will be involved in further investigation and criminal proceedings -- and for how long?

Will attention to crimes like homicide or child abuse be diverted? Is prosecuting this case worth it for a piece of stone that, and let’s admit the obvious, most local residents were at best indifferent to, and at worst repulsed by?

Last, statues that honor the Confederacy are inescapably tied to signaling white supremacy.

Without slavery, economic tensions between the North and South would not have boiled over into war. The notion that the Civil War was over “states’ rights” misses an obvious point: it was over states’ “right” to maintain slavery.

Moreover, Durham’s statue was erected six decades after the war ended, in a wave of post-Civil War racist repression. During this era of Jim Crow lynching and terror, Southern states erected memorials as to display a commitment to segregation. The statue itself has nothing to do with North Carolina — it is a generic figure, {{a href="external_link-16890662"}}designed in Georgia.{{/a}}

For these reasons, citizens in communities throughout the South, like Durham, have come to recognize these statues are poor symbols of our shared values.

The North Carolina General Assembly’s 2015 ban on local control of memorials, adopted in the wake of another Confederate-tinged hate crime, has forced the continued presence of statues such as Durham’s memorial and UNC’s “Silent Sam” -- until now.

On their own, citizens in Durham, Charlotte, and other cities can’t reverse that law. But we can recognize that the demonstrators who broke it are more in line with the open and diverse state that we’ve become than the politicians who blocked local control.

What should be done with Confederate memorials? Some statue supporters argue that we shouldn’t “erase history.” They’re right. Most Confederate statues belong where most Hitler statues do; in museums, where they can be appropriately contextualized.

Durham’s case may be different. As its statue is already fallen, maintaining the rubble as is would serve as a powerful living memorial, marking a moment when we decisively turned away from honoring white supremacy.

Regardless, let’s not waste time mourning an insulting piece of stone. Durham County’s sheriff and district attorney should drop this case – and North Carolina legislators should stop spending money and time to defend symbols that neo-Nazis and KKK members hold dear.

14 Comments

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  • Linda Tally Sep 5, 8:55 p.m.
    user avatar

    Great solution to the current situation - leave the generic Confederate statue in it's current condition and put it on display! The "southern history" crowds have their statute. The rest of us have ours!

  • Anthony Lowery Aug 22, 9:48 p.m.
    user avatar

    “Our new government is founded upon … the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”
    Alexander H. Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy
    Cornerstone Speech, March 21, 1861

    “A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.”
    South Carolina Declaration of causes for secession,
    December 24, 1860

    There is no doubt among reputable historians that the Confederacy was established upon the premise of white supremacy and that the South fought the Civil War to preserve its slave labor. Its founding documents and its leaders were clear. “Our new government is founded upon … the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natura

  • Anthony Lowery Aug 22, 9:43 p.m.
    user avatar

    Gary Thompson you are completely wrong about the cause of the Civil War. With minimal effort you can find the following information along with much more. Then as the old Vaudeville joke says 'Who you gonna' believe your lyin' eyes or,,,, "Written for posterity is the reason for the Civil War. Here in their own words is the justification for their action given without political talking heads, apologists, and spinmeisters. This is in direct contrast with the nostalgia and romanticism associated with that atrocity.
    The myth and nobility came during and after Reconstruction and during the Jim Crow era. There was a need for revisionist history and even now the mythology continues. There are numerous speeches and documents from numerous governors, senators, and elected officials supporting the stated cause for the war. The 'states rights' all agreed on was the right to own slaves.
    The Confederacy: In Its Own Words
    The desire to preserve slavery was the cause for secession by Southern states

  • Brent Hall Aug 19, 4:41 p.m.
    user avatar

    Professor Ghoshal, as a supposed man of scholar, you should get your facts, or lack of, straight before posting this completely incorrect and preposterous editorial. The statements you made are completely false and you know this. Get a real education!!

  • Robert Swiger Sr. Aug 19, 4:31 p.m.
    user avatar

    Professor so you are saying we should left criminals go so they can just go up and down the street doing as they wish. I am sure my children never had you as a teacher and sir you disgrace the teaching profession.

  • Teddy Fowler Aug 19, 2:51 p.m.
    user avatar

    So if California leaves the US... as is talked about in some earnest... the rest of the US to take to war with California.... invade their new country.... kill at will and burn down their cities.... force them back into the union.... rule of them with an iron fist for years to come... and then make sure we never allow them to put up statues memorializing their dead? all because they are traitors? and continue to hold everything against them for at least 150 years? I don't see a whole lot of compassion.... in fact... I see none...

  • Gary Thompson Aug 19, 12:18 p.m.
    user avatar

    As a professor you sir should know above the normal person that slavery was not the issue. If it was why was there still FOUR NORTHERN STATES THAT HAD SLAVES FOR SEVERAL YEARS AFTER THE WAR. LINCOLN ONLY ENDED IT IN THE SOUTH AS A PUNISHMENT FOR GOING AGAINST THE NORTH WHICH WAS BROKE. A TAX LAW AGAINST SOUTHERN PLANTATIONS THAT WERE PRODUCING CROPS OF CORN,COTTON OR TOBACCO IS WHAT CAUSED SOUTH CAROLINA TO SUCCEED WHICH WAS A STATES RIGHT IN THE CONSTITUTION AT THAT TIME. WHEN THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT SAID NO AND DECLARED WAR ON OUR NEIGHBORS WE REFUSED TO FIGHT AND SUCCEEDED ALSO. IF YOU ARE GOING TO TALK ABOUT IT MAKE SURE YOU TELL THE FACTS PLEASE

  • Thomas Morris Aug 19, 11:37 a.m.
    user avatar

    On dropping the charges, what about the legal precedent that would be set? Dropping the charges would open the door for any mob to tear down any monument and apply the "I felt it was oppressive" defense. How many white supremacists do you think would say they had felt "oppressed" by a Martin Luther King statue?

  • B.c. Jimmy Aug 19, 11:11 a.m.
    user avatar

    Dear Raj , what is conscription? Was there conscription during the civil war? Why would a bunch of ladies at the U.D.C. put up a memorial in Capital square for their confederate dead?
    Men like you are the problem, not statutes.

  • John Kramer Aug 19, 9:58 a.m.
    user avatar

    Hardly shocking to see this on WRAL.

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