“They have their statue, why can’t we have ours?”

A friend’s mother was in town visiting. She’s in her 80’s, from Alabama, and as sweet as can be… when she isn’t commenting on society or politics. We were in the car, and a news story came on the radio about the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from Lee Park, in Dallas. “That just makes me so upset,” she opined. “I mean it just seems unfair. There is a big Martin Luther King statue, and nobody complains. They have their statue, why can’t we have ours?”

This article will not be yet another “oh look, sweet people can be racist, too!” missive. Only people who ignore racism, or who never think deeply about it, are ever surprised by the fact that “nice people” can be racist. Instead I want to talk about the way she sees Confederate monuments, and why her question is the answer to her own question. Maybe I can convince some of my young liberal friends that it is important to take down Confederate monuments, as well.

The removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in Dallas doesn’t come in isolation. There has been a debate over Confederate monuments in the United States for years. After the American Civil War, and again as a backlash against the Civil Rights movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s, a number of statues were put up that honored Confederate soldiers and leaders, or the Confederate states. In the past few years there has been a push to take these monuments down.

The argument for taking them down is that they were created to honor the losing side in a war that was fought primarily over whether states should have the freedom to buy and sell black people as slaves. They are symbols that were created specifically to give homage to a movement that wanted to keep slavery alive in America.

The argument for leaving them up is that their removal would effectively erase history, and that we shouldn’t censor parts of our history that we find distasteful.  This argument is stupid. The civil war is still shown and discussed in museums, movies and history books. There is no attempt to stamp out mention of the Confederacy: only to remove monuments that specifically were created to celebrate the Confederacy’s attempt to separate from the United States.

So the argument for keeping them up is face-value stupid. Why do people make arguments that are obviously stupid? I will get to that in a moment.

My friend’s mother is from Alabama, and the Martin Luther King statue she was referring to was undoubtedly the one in Birmingham. Although her statement in the car that day was a reaction to a news story about Dallas, it probably rekindled anger she had already felt over the decision to cover a confederate monument in Birmingham earlier that year. That confederate monument had been part of her childhood, and she probably had never thought deeply about the racist implications of the statue. It was just part of the way the world was, in Alabama in the 20th century.

What if she had thought deeply about it? Here is a statue celebrating the Confederacy. As a child growing up, she looks up to and learns from the adults in the room. There can’t be anything wrong or deeply hateful about the Confederacy if all of these nice adults honor it, right? Why would there be 107 Confederate monuments in Alabama alone if those monuments were somehow mean or terrible?

There is a well-known psychological phenomenon called cognitive dissonance: when a person has two beliefs that come into conflict, that person often goes through great lengths to resolve the discomfort caused by the conflict. Sometimes this means ignoring the obvious, sometimes it means “explaining away” matters despite the flimsiness of the explanation.

Sometimes it means making arguments that are obviously stupid.

How does cognitive dissonance impact people who grow up in societies that already have racist laws, racist policies, and racist traditions?  In his book Stamped from the beginning: the definitive history of racist ideas in America, author and professor of history Ibram X. Kendi argues that it’s a mistake to think that racist beliefs are the root cause of racist policies and practice: most often it is the other way around.

In an interview about the book published in the journal Thought & Action, Kendi explains:

I wanted to write a history of racist ideas, a history of America, and show how the historical context produced these people, who produced these racist ideas. That led me to figure out the motives behind why they were producing these racist ideas. I found, over and again, that these producers were not ignorant. They were not hateful. Many of them were the most brilliant minds in American history. And they typically were producing these ideas to defend existing racist policies. The disparities were in place, their effects were profound, and these racist ideas were an attempt to normalize and justify those racist policies.

This perspective completely upends the claim I hear so often from our right wing in America, that we should not try to use legislation to change people’s minds. “You can’t make people less racist by passing laws,” the conservative movement so often says.

It also is a counter-argument to the objection often hear from young progressives. They will rightly point out that the mere fact that something is offensive isn’t an argument against it: lots of people are offended by lots of dumb things. This makes many of my young left-wing friends think that we shouldn’t be focusing on monuments, which are just a symptom of racist history and ideas. We should be focusing instead on racist beliefs, they say.

According to Kendi, they are not merely wrong: they have the world completely backwards. To reduce or eliminate racism in society, we must eliminate the laws and practices that institutionalize and normalize racism. The best way to change racist ideas is to be the person writing antiracist policies, or to be at the table when those policies are written.

After all, let’s think back to my friend’s mom. That Confederate statue she grew up with wasn’t the cause of her racism, but it was part of the problem. It was part of a cultural framework of “us versus them”, a social system that accepted that confederate monuments were a part of heritage and history and “what it means to be an Alabaman.” And that system shapes the minds of the people acting with in it.

“Why can’t we have ours?”

The question answers itself: because the removal of these statues is one of the first small steps towards changing the public policies and practices of institutionalized racism, which in turn is the first step toward removing the conditions that lead people to thinking of Confederate monuments as “ours” in the first place. They are an actual practical step towards moving our society aware from racism.