In 2020, things happen that never happened before. And right now they seem to be happening all at once.
Atop a global pandemic and resulting recession, June has given us another dimension of head-spinning events. Following two weeks of widespread street protests over the police killing of George Floyd, a change of attitude seems to have swept across the national culture like a sudden wind.
Long-controversial statues of Confederate Civil War heroes have been smashed, beheaded or pulled to the ground. Where they still stand, elected officials and courts are weighing their future anew. Where they are down, few would expect them to rise again. The spontaneous action of the unlawful may prove as lasting as the legal steps of officials.
Action as dramatic as sledgehammers on bronze was sure to dominate the story on TV. But perhaps more stunning was the prospective absence of another Southern icon. The Confederate battle flag known as the “Stars and Bars” has been banned from NASCAR races, where the banner has been so common as to be emblematic. The change was proposed years ago but rejected.
The head of the National Football League has reversed its stand on players kneeling during the National Anthem. And the Republican-run Senate Armed Services Committee blessed a process to rename major U.S. military facilities in Southern states that now honor Confederate generals from the Civil War. That idea had been promoted in The Atlantic by retired General David Petraeus, former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The long-running TV reality show called “COPS” was cancelled and the 1939 film Gone With the Wind was briefly shuttered on HBO Max before coming back battened with “historical context.” A long- running fan favorite (President Trump recently said he wished there were more movies like it) the Civil War epic romanticized prewar plantation life and post-war vigilantism in Georgia while demeaning African Americans in both eras.
Suddenly, we are having a new moment of reckoning about race. And like the pandemic with which it coincides, it has global implications. In many parts of the world, protesters have torn down symbols fraught with racial antipathy. As far away as New Zealand, protesters in Hamilton removed the statue of the British naval commander for whom the city was named (he died in the 1860s battling the tribal people of the island).
The pulling down of statues was common in Africa half a century ago as the European colonial powers decamped and left their monuments behind. More monumental fury burst forth with the fall of the Soviet Empire a generation later. Then there was that immense (if hollow) statue of Saddam Hussein that came down after the fall of Baghdad in 2003.
These were surely significant acts marking legitimate breakthroughs for these peoples. Does their sudden escalation in America mark a similar breakthrough?
“I think this country needs to have a reckoning,” says Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans who removed Confederate statues from his city’s parks years ago. “A collective reckoning that what we have done in the past is wrong, that what we did in the past had consequences and to make a commitment to change.”
We stand now at a moment of pause and amazement. So much has taken place in two weeks. What will the long-term effects be?
Many of the changes taking place, while notable and even newsworthy, can be said to be more symbolic than real. A renamed Fort Bragg will not raise wages for blacks in North Carolina or enhance their voting power. Renaming a boulevard for Martin Luther King Jr., or a park for Malcolm X, will not lessen the chances of police violence targeting the people who use that street or park.
That said, it is undeniable that names and flags are symbols that convey historical values. These symbols meant approval to people when they were created, and they convey much of that same meaning now.
Surely there are those who brandish the Confederate flag – whether at a stock car race or on a truck — for its air of outlaw cool. But what is signaled here to an African American is a more than a casual attachment to the Confederate cause — in the present as well as the past. People do not cling to the emblems of the past that represent things they abhor.
Statues and flags may not do physical harm to anyone or suppress anyone’s vote. But they meant something to the people who put them up, and they have meaning for people who see them today. They connote a social order, a cultural hierarchy, the holding of power. Ultimately, they signify white supremacy.
The racial and cultural history of our nation is maddeningly complex and contradictory. Gone With the Wind ironically produced the first Oscar for an African American (Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy). It was a personal triumph and hailed as a breakthrough. But it did not break the cycle of type-casting that kept McDaniel a maid throughout her acting career. It did not change Hollywood or the expectation of audiences. It did not result in a proliferation of parts for people of color.
Momentous Supreme Court decisions and major pieces of legislation gave permanence to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Barack Obama was twice elected president. Yet the notion of a “post-racial society” remained a dream.
Just three years ago a furor followed the racially charged street fighting in Charlottesville, Va.. That ugly day, and the death of one counter-protester, began with a neo-Nazi march about preserving Confederate statues. Since then, many monuments have been removed – but others have been installed and seven states have passed laws to give them more protection.
Two years before Charlottesville our eyes were on Charleston, S.C., where a young white man killed nine people praying in the city’s historic Mother Emanuel Church. President Obama spoke and sang at the funeral. We all came to know the names Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott and so many others.
Those moments came, attention was paid. And then time moved on.
But that should not devalue this moment or what sets it apart. It may be the existence of the COVID-19 pandemic and its disparate health and economic effects on the races. It may be the cumulative effect of President Trump’s calling protesters “thugs” and backing virtually all actions by police.
This time the polls, such as the NPR/PBS/Marist Poll, showed big majorities of the country supporting the protesters over the police. What’s more, in a sudden gush of announcements, one organization after another that might have been expected to hunker down and ride out the storm have instead responded with gestures that widen our eyes.
They are only gestures, not changes in policy or action. But they are not without weight. They will alter important elements of our shared national life that have broad popular appeal. Sports are essential to life for millions of Americans. Movies and TV matter to our sense of ourselves. And monuments bespeak mindsets. When these elements of our life can change, more can change.