From state capitols to NASCAR races, many conversations and protests about racial justice have become focused on Confederate flags and icons. For obvious reasons, people of color are not happy about imagery that memorializes and celebrates racist people and institutions. What does it communicate when a statue or flag asks us to look back fondly on people who continually dehumanized and subjugated Black Americans?
This conversation is an old hat by now, and it’s unbelievable that these points still need to be made. But perhaps it’s time to inspect the argument that is, without fail, leveled against these cries for statue removal: the slippery slope. “Sure,” the statue-lover concedes, “we can remove statues of people who explicitly served in the Confederate army. But what’s next? Thomas Jefferson?! George Washington?” At this point, I trust you can hear the gasp of dismay as it echoes among white conservatives.
While slippery slope arguments are generally bad, and thus easy to dismiss out of hand, there is a real and practical challenge at the heart of this one. If we begin to remove plaques and statues, and rename schools once named after Confederate soldiers, what about other early Americans who were less explicitly enemy-of-America-and-all-Black-people bad? People who were slaveowners when it was more widely accepted among white people? What about someone who didn’t own slaves but who once published a racist remark in a newspaper? The practical challenge presented by this way of thinking is this: Who gets to decide how offensive is too offensive? Who adjudicates a complicated history and declares who is fit to be a public hero?
I do not have an answer to that question, because I do, in fact, reject the entire slippery slope. The slope itself—which is to say, all the statues of our heroic Founding Fathers—should be torn down and moved to museums. The primary reason for this approach is not to resolve the tricky questions posed above; those only matter if you value the statues to begin with. No, we should free ourselves from these statues because doing so may heal us from the poison of our own naïve reading of history.
Justo González hits this home in Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective. While making the point that Latinx Christians have treasure troves of wisdom to offer white Christians, he reveals that one such treasure is “responsible remembrance.” Because of their brutal genesis (“our Spanish forefathers raped our Indian mothers”), González contends that Hispanic people live with a full view of the ugliness of history. White Americans, meanwhile, have the privilege to selectively remember or forget history in whatever ways suit them. We can choose to remember Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration but forget that he raped slaves.
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Statues (along with history books) are one of the primary tools of this irresponsible remembrance, this selective forgetfulness. Statues are erected to immortalize heroes, to forever remember their best achievements and attributes. When we have moved someone into the mental category of “hero,” we must forget the dark parts of their story. We can’t have evil heroes.
And so we romantically remember an America forged for the sake of freedom, forgetting that white people summarily denied this freedom to Black people. We remember an America whose land we were manifestly destined to explore and settle, forgetting that white people violently stole it from Indigenous peoples.
This project, perfectly encapsulated in the building of a statue, has served to effectively shield white Americans from feelings of guilt or thoughts of reparation—but it has left us woefully unable or unwilling to fix systemically racist systems. The cure, of course, isn’t just the rote removal of statues—it’s the interrogation of our false, innocent view of history. But tearing down the statues is a start. This is not to say that, practically speaking, we must immediately remove every statue in our nation. However, when a group of people is hurt enough by any given monument to protest for its removal, rather than attempt to debate the merits of the historical figure, we should remove the damned statue.
All of this may be even more pressing for followers of Jesus and for communities of faith. We who view all of history as a gift and each person as an image-bearer of God cannot afford to pick and choose which parts of history we will acknowledge. We must work to understand and own every piece of what created our churches, cities, and country as we know them today.
Who knows what peace and freedom this difficult work might one day yield? As Peter Choi noted in his affirmation of a George Whitefield statue’s removal, each concrete act of removal “might serve as a moment of reckoning, for redress. If it sparks conversations where we interrogate tropes of white saviorism and nationalistic greatness, that would be… a sign of hope.”