Targeting Confederate Statutes shouldn't become a proxy for true reforms
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This month's events in Charlottesville and, to a lesser degree in Boston, have plunged the country into a new level of polarization, one so extreme that references to Nazis are now commonplace on cable news.

The violence in Charlottesville was perpetuated by Americans who exist at the social and political fringes of the country. On the right stand the would-be Nazis and white nationalists with their horrifying chants of outright racial bigotry. On the left, the Antifa movement with its violent response.

Neither of these extremes represent the majority of any American constituency. As The Federalist’s John Davidson wrote, “they do not wield actual power, but they have realized a way to exert out-sized influence through the instigation of publicly staged violence.”

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Implicit here is the idea that we — the media, the politicals, the population as a whole — should stop giving such a hateful sliver of the population such a wide platform for their views.

 

The events in Charlottesville have touched off another, wider national debate about the moral significance of Confederate statutes, of which there are many. Whether or not these statutes stand in homage to America’s past, or as steel and iron symbols of oppression, is the question now plaguing the many communities in which they stand. The choice is presented as binary. These statutes are either good or bad, and if they are bad, they must be destroyed. This is a false characterization. For lack of a better phrase, the issue is not black and white.

The meaning of the Civil War — its causes, factors, triumphs and tragedies — is different for individual Americans. To some, these statues stand as monuments to history, as daily reminders of the bravery of forefathers. 

As someone raised in the far Northeast, in the city the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass called home, I grew up without ever encountering a Confederate monument until I moved to D.C.. Ten years later, I still feel uneasy driving down Stonewall Jackson Highway. 

But this is the point of art: to remind, to stimulate — to trigger. History is not one collective nod of approval. It is as messy, tragic, and inhumane as it is curious and beautiful.

Community conversations about these statues have become a proxy for what divides us, what unites us, and the stories we tell ourselves about what it means to be American. This dialogue is fundamental and important.

That these conversations are being shut down by violence, by the judgmental fiat of one collective group, is disheartening. The arc of American history persists, in spite of its horrors and successes, and is defined in large part by the openness of her citizens — to listening, to accepting, to healing, to hearing. This is a vital moment for communities across America to talk about the meaning of their individual and collective histories. Let it not be lost.

But there is still another conversation to be had as well, about the marginalization that very much exists throughout our society. The true tragedy of Charlottesville would be to lose the momentum for change at this level — to begin reforming the criminal justice system, which disproportionally impacts young, black men; to initiate welfare reform that breaks the cycle of poverty for so many families; to support local law enforcement with adequate resources; to enhance the educational opportunities for poor communities by giving families the resources — through vouchers and choice — to send their kids to the best neighborhood schools. 

The goal of the extreme right and the extreme left is to divide. To convince us that differences in our views are nothing more than the measures of our rightness or wrongness, rather than contrasting truths, thoughtfully held.

We must not be divided by the political fringes, but rather, use this moment to improve upon our body politic as whole. As President Lincoln admonished in his First Inaugural address, to a nation thick with the passions of war:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angles of our nature.

The sad reality is that even if we dismantle all the statues, we will not be truly better off. Our marginalized communities will still face economic barriers, a biased justice system, and the poor governmental policies that create racial stratification where there ought to be none.

Rachel Bovard (@Rachel_Bovard) is the senior director of policy for The Conservative Partnership, a nonprofit group headed by former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint aimed at promoting limited government.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.