Statues are symbols that recognize great people and deeds throughout our nation’s history. Many of the Confederate statues interspersed throughout our country were erected during the height of Jim Crow to remind Black Americans of their inferior citizenship. Enshrining and glorifying bigotry and racial discrimination should not stand as a representation of who we are or who we want to be as Americans.
Statues that honor Confederates who fought to preserve the enslavement of Black Americans and the laws that codified their status as less-than-human must be removed from all public spaces that are maintained with tax dollars—tax dollars collected from some of the very people the statues were erected to demean and intimidate. Allowing these statues to exist outside of the proper historical context that museums provide is irresponsible. Certainly, we do not erect and maintain statues to those who fought against the United States in any other war.
Like many, I have been impressed with how quickly the public, the media, and elected officials have condemned and begun removing these statues after seeing their pernicious effect in Charlottesville. However, the most urgent and painful relics of slavery and racial segregation in America are not statues, but stark and systemic racial inequalities that have persisted in America for years. As cities across the country debate the removal of Confederate statues, we have a potentially fleeting opportunity to pivot from condemning racially divisive symbols to actually establishing real racial equality.
As an elected official, I grapple every day with racial inequities and grow frustrated about our failure to bridge the vast divide between White Americans and Americans of color. I look every day at failing school systems that disproportionately impact children of color. I look at the economic insecurity of Black families in America with a median family wealth of only $11,030, while white families have $134,230. I look at the 8.4 percent unemployment of Black Americans versus 4.3 percent unemployment of White Americans. And I look at a justice system that incarcerates Black Americans at five times the rate of White Americans.
If you believe that the potential of all Americans is equal across races, then you must admit that these disparate outcomes indicate clear inequality and that our policies are in desperate need of change. Most of us have known this for decades – much longer than we knew who confederate General Albert Pike was – and would agree that these outcomes are significantly more egregious legacies of white supremacy in the United States than Confederate statues. Yet, while we have seen calls for action from local and federal officials, Democrats and Republicans alike to remove confederate statues, we have not seen the same urgency to attack the continuing inequality and discrimination faced by Black Americans every day.
Elected officials tend to act because of public attention rather than the urgency of an issue. That is why less than 48 hours after my friend, Baltimore Councilmember Brandon Scott, introduced a bill to remove Confederate statues, they were removed. Even Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer caved to public pressure and now agree that such statues should be removed. Without news coverage and public attention, I have no doubt that Councilmember Scott’s bill would have languished in the political process for years.
The country is currently having a broad dialogue about racial justice not seen since the civil rights era. Every major national and local television network is leading with stories about Confederate statues and the racial injustices they symbolize. Masses of people are pouring into the streets and engaging online about racial justice and inclusion through a debate about statues. People seem less resigned to the racial status quo. If we had doubt about our ability to demand and realize change, we see evidence from recent events that when people engage our governments in a collective effort, we can force progress.
We are in troubled times, led by a President who knowingly provides a platform for the public reemergence and growth of hateful, bigoted groups. We are watching our country devolve into an era of pain and division similar to that which preceded the Civil Rights movement. When we emerge from this era we have to ensure that the removal of offensive statues is not our greatest accomplishment.
Before the public, media, and elected officials become consumed with the next passing issue, we must pivot from demands for removing statues to demands for real change that translates into equal opportunities for Americans of color. The gap between White Americans and Americans of color is too broad and the opportunities to narrow it are too few. We cannot miss this chance to demand more low-income and affordable housing in our cities; to demand that governments align workforce training programs to their local economies, with annual assessments of their success; to demand money for failing schools, which are predominantly in communities of color; to demand an honest evaluation of our criminal codes based on the outcomes we seek; and to demand more support for citizens returning from incarceration.
Yes, the Confederate statues must come down, but that cannot be our end game. Donald Trump asked what is next after we remove these statues. The answer, I believe, is real progress on real equality.
Robert C. White, Jr. (D) is a council member at large in the District of Columbia.