Tearing Down White Supremacist Monuments Isn’t Empty Symbolism

June 18, 2020

The monuments represent more than just the people they honor. They symbolize the brutal legacy of white supremacy, racism, colonialism, and genocide we live with today.

The monuments represent more than just the people they honor. They symbolize the brutal legacy of white supremacy, racism, colonialism, and genocide we live with today.


Tearing Down White Supremacist Monuments Isn't Empty Symbolism

Story Transcript

This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Jacqueline Luqm…: This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network. As the national protests against racist police terrorism grew across this country, and eventually spread to countries around the world, the spontaneous nature of these organic uprisings was obviously connected to the spark that was the public lynching of George Floyd in Minneapolis, but they were largely seen as specifically about police violence against Black and other marginalized people, but otherwise unfocused. But, as the monuments to Confederate generals began coming down in the US and other statues of heralded figures throughout history were targeted around the world, it became clear that these national and global protests were about more than just solidarity with seeking justice for George Floyd, and even just with Black Lives Matter.

I’m so pleased to be joined by Dr. Gerald Horne, to talk about the significance of some of the statues that have been removed, whether by protestors or by state officials and what this means for the direction and the character of the ongoing protests in the days to come. Dr. Horne holds the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston. He’s the author of many excellent books, and the upcoming book, The Dawning of the Apocalypse: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, Settler Colonialism, and Capitalism in the Long Sixteenth Century. Dr. Horne, thank you so much for joining me.

Dr. Gerald Horn…: Thank you for inviting me, and I’m happy to report that that book has just dropped the other day.

Jacqueline Luqm…: Excellent. Excellent. Absolutely looking forward to another great read. So, Dr. Horne, the statues of the Confederate generals in several states in the US have been a target for removal for years. And one of the main ones, the massive statue of General Lee in Richmond, Virginia on Monument Avenue is slated to be removed, although a judge has issued an injunction against that removal by Richmond mayor, Levar Stoney. Then we have a particularly poignant and, I think, symbolic removal of Christopher Columbus’s statue in Minneapolis that was carried out by members of the American Indian movement. Watching this, Dr. Horne, I felt like this was pulling down the false narrative erected about 1492. But, could you tell us why this removal is significant, historically, for this country and for the people who removed it?

Dr. Gerald Horn…: Well, first of all, the whitewashing of where colonialism in some ways begins with the false narrative constructed around Christopher Columbus and his son who liquidated the indigenous population of the island we call Hispaniola, which now contains both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and also was involved in slave trading of Africans. In fact, some of the early uprisings by enslaved Africans were against the misrule and the terrorist rule of the Columbus family, and certainly, to erect a statue to a genocidaire, a man who helped to kick off centuries of genocide, it does not speak well, I’m afraid to say, for the United States of America. And it’s insulting, outrageous, and quite frankly, concerning that such statues have pockmarked the landscape for such a long period of time.

Jacqueline Luqm…: And then we have Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York defending the statue of Christopher Columbus in New York City as a symbol of Italian Americans’ contribution to New York. Now, what are the contradictions in Cuomo’s statement and Columbus’s statue being a symbol for Italian Americans, especially in this moment?

Dr. Gerald Horn…: Well, with all due respect to the governor of the Empire State, a curious term that, I might add, I hope and I think that if Italian Americans are looking for symbols of heroism, they might as well, if they’re going to uplift Christopher Columbus, they might as well uplift Lucky Luciano, and Vito Genovese, and Al Capone, and Frank Costello, and leaders of organized crime. Because those leaders of organized crime, they pale into insignificance when it comes to their misdeeds and their transgressions when compared to a genocidaire like Christopher Columbus. In fact, I’m disappointed at Governor Cuomo because the mainstream press, the corporate media has misled us to believe that, somehow, he is a thoughtful politician. But, alas, that statement that you’ve just cited helps to belie that kind of analysis.

Jacqueline Luqm…: It is incredibly disappointing, but it’s also revealing how the media does prop up these kinds of statements from who they indicate is the latest liberal darling, I suppose. And that is certainly what they’re doing with the Cuomos in New York, in regard to the narrative around Christopher Columbus and the continued deification of this man in the Italian American community. And that calls into question a few other statues, internationally, that have been the focus of renewed attention because there are calls to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oxford University in the UK. And that’s getting a lot of resistance from a lot of people in British society. Why would people want to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes, and what significance does Mr. Rhodes have in US society that we might not be aware of, Dr. Horne?

Dr. Gerald Horn…: Well, Cecil Rhodes made a major fortune through the exploitation of the resources of Africa and the cheap labor of Africans. You may recall that the country now known as Zimbabwe was once known as Rhodesia or Southern Rhodesia, named after Mr. Rhodes. You may know that the country now known as Zambia was once known as Northern Rhodesia, named after Cecil Rhodes. You may know that Cecil Rhodes was also quite close to the racist in South Africa and, in fact, lived the number of years in South Africa and, of course, his fortune was bequeathed in part to create the so-called Rhodes Scholarship which, I’m afraid to say, has ensnared a number of US nationals and a number of US citizens who’ve gone on to study at Oxford University at the behest of, and as a result of, the shameless exploitation of Africa, and its resources, and its people.

Now, fortunately at Oxford University, as we speak, there is a Rhodes Must Fall movement. And, indeed, in the Financial Times of London just today, believe it or not, there’s an editorial or op-ed piece endorsing this idea that the statue of Cecil Rhodes must fall because I would like to think that we can do better than this. We can do better than honoring men known for their racism, their naked white supremacy, and their shameless and crude exploitation of their fellow human beings.

Jacqueline Luqm…: Now, this next question puzzled a lot of people, this next question about the next statue that is being called to be removed from a university in Accra, Ghana. And this is a statue of Mahatma Gandhi. Now, people are very confused about why anybody would want to remove a statue honoring the man who Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. indicated was responsible for part of his belief in non-violent protest. What is the significance of the problem of Gandhi and his relationship to Africans, in particular, that would lead to people wanting to remove his statue from a university in Ghana?

Dr. Gerald Horn…: Well, I’m afraid to say, and pardon the expression, that there’s a dark side to MK Gandhi. That is to say, that before he attained prominence in India and in South Asia, more generally, he had spent a number of years in South Africa. And I’m afraid to say that Mr. Gandhi did not distinguish himself with regard to his solicitude to the indigenous African population. And, in fact, you can construct an argument to suggest that, in some ways, he was trying to cut a deal with European minority on behalf of the South Asian minority on the Indian Ocean coast of South Africa itself. And I think that that helps to undergird the movement in Accra.

And keep in mind that a number of nationals of South Asia, particularly I would say, of the Sikh minority in South Asia, Sikhism, as you know, is the sixth-largest religion in the world, they would heartily endorse the removal of this statue to Mr. Gandhi because they see him in some ways as being a lineal ancestor of Prime Minister Modi in New Delhi who, as you know, is a kind of Hindu chauvinist and whose misrule and maladministration of India is now bringing that country into sharp conflict with its neighbor, China, on behalf of US imperialism. So, I think that these movements that we’re addressing should be applauded, the leaders should be congratulated because it suggests that our ideology and our ideas are not static, that we seek to learn from the past. We are not prisoners of the past.

Jacqueline Luqm…: Mm-hmm (affirmative) I know that people watching this when they learn about this dark side of Gandhi that you just told us, people will probably ask, “How did Dr. King not know this?” So, how do you think Dr. Martin Luther King would not know about this dark history of someone who he championed as a sort of an idol of his own?

Dr. Gerald Horn…: Well, as I’m sure you know, more than most, many nations construct fantasies and construct a false narratives about their heroes, and their heroines, and their history. I mean, look at the United States of America. Nikole Hannah-Jones just won a Pulitzer Prize in the New York Times for basically telling the truth. That is to say, that when the settlers, led by real estate speculator number one, George Washington, revolted against British rule in 1776, they were driven in no small measure by the desire to preserve slavery, enslavement of Africans. Yet the myth, the immaculate conception myth of the founding of the United States still holds true. And if you look at the scurrilous attacks on Nikole Hannah-Jones, despite her winning the Pulitzer, you’ll understand why many are rather reluctant to tamper with these sacred myths that, I’m afraid to say, oftentimes substitute for accurate history.

And so, with regard to Dr. King, I’m afraid to say, I never had a conversation with him about this, but I speculate that he was just reading the mythology that many folks read. But I dare say, that a man who was obviously able to grow intellectually and politically, that if he were around in 2020, I’m sure he would like to revise his initial thoughts about MK Gandhi.

Jacqueline Luqm…: And certainly because we are still fighting the system of white supremacy that crafted that narrative. It’s that same system that has made it true that Dr. King is not alive today to speak to the very thing that you just said. That’s I think something that needs to be said in this moment right now. Now, Dr. Horne, the next issue, this particular statue, this I think is one of the most significant out of all the monuments that are slated to be removed or have been removed in this moment. Because for me, I think it represents a part of the history of African people under colonization that is so often ignored and it’s treated as if it never even happened, and so it ultimately didn’t matter. But the removal of the statue of King Leopold in Belgium caused me to catch my breath, actually. I didn’t think it would ever happen. What does the statue to this particular man mean in regard to African people, not just in Africa, but around the world?

Dr. Gerald Horn…: Well, I just used the term genocidaire to describe Christopher Columbus. I would have to think of a new word to describe King Leopold because he makes Christopher Columbus seem like a piker by comparison. During his misrule of what was then called the Belgian Congo in the late 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, it’s estimated that approximately 10 million Africans perished as a result of the forced labor regime that he presided over, which forced these Africans to work under the gun in order to create wealth for this small kingdom in Western Europe. And, not only that, but this does not even take into account the Africans who had their hands cut off, or their limbs cut off, or their eyes gouged out. I mean, what happened under King Leopold is shameful.

And, once again, what’s staggering and stunning is not that the statues to him in Belgium are belatedly coming down, the question is really, what took so long? It does not speak well, I’m afraid to say, for the current rulers in Brussels. And, by the way, it does not speak well for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which is led by the United States, but it headquartered in Brussels, does not speak well that they did not lead a movement to remove these statues. It does not speak well for the European Union, which is headquartered in Brussels, that they did not lead a movement to remove these statues. I think that a moral stain basically rests upon, not only the rulers or the misrulers of Belgium but also NATO and the European Union, as well.

Jacqueline Luqm…: So, Dr. Horne, I mean, we just touched on a few of the significant statues that are being focused on right now. When we look at these actions across the country and around the world where protestors are focusing their energies, some of their energies on removing these statues, what are people really focusing on here? Because the argument is always, well, these are just statues, they’re just symbols. That’s the argument in one camp. Then, of course, the other argument in the other camp that we hear in the United States, especially around the statues of Confederate generals, is that if you take the statues down you’re erasing history, which I think is ridiculous, but that’s one of the arguments. But this is obviously something more than just solidarity with George Floyd, but it is connected. So, can you help us understand how the targeting of these statues, these monuments, these symbols being removed are related to what happened to George Floyd, but it’s also bigger than what happened to just him?

Dr. Gerald Horn…: Well, particularly the Confederate statues, the statues on Monument Avenue in Richmond, the statues to Robert E. Lee, the statues to these figures, these traitors like Jefferson Davis, the president of the so-called Confederate States of America, they provide psychological sustenance and succor to white supremacists. They help to reinforce the idea that white supremacy should be normative, that it should not be seen as an outlaw ideology that should be cast into the dustbin of history, but it should be seen as a living organism deserving and meriting respect. And therefore, when you watch the video of George Floyd being lynched on camera, you cannot separate that from the defense of white supremacy because George Floyd was lynched, not least because of ideology of white supremacy basically suggested that people of African descent were not worthy of living and are not worthy of living. That is the ultimate expression, I’m afraid to say, of white supremacy.

And so, when we have these attacks on statues, you have to put this in larger context of a multi-front offensive against white supremacy. The multi-front offensive includes the letters spearheaded by the actor, Viola Davis, reprimanding and rebuking the theater community for its white supremacy. The offensive against white supremacy also includes the pressure on Albany to rewrite the laws concerning the ability of the police to use offensive methods like chokeholds, for example. The offensive against white supremacy is a multi-front offensive, and we should not downplay or at all denigrate the effort to take down these statues, which are psychological sustenance to the most odious of white supremacists.

Jacqueline Luqm…: And, in your opinion, Dr. Horne, finally, I have to ask you this because you study, teach, and document uprisings and rebellions throughout history. Where do you see this global movement going? Are we at a moment that is pivotal for the history of humankind, as pivotal as some of the previous uprisings, and rebellions, and revolutions that you have documented, studied, and documented because I feel like it is, but I’m wondering how you feel about this moment right now?

Dr. Gerald Horn…: I would like to think so. And, certainly, when we just heard that the government of Burkina Faso in central-western Africa, on behalf of the African Union, is tabling a motion at the United Nations Human Rights Council to bring up the United States on charges of systemic racism against Black people. This is extraordinary. This is something that’s unique. And in light of it taking place within the context of demonstrations in Auckland, New Zealand, and Sydney, Australia, and London, England, and Berlin, Germany, all of which are militant expressions of revulsion towards either settler colonialism or colonialism itself, we are in the midst of a major movement.

Now, where will this movement eventuate? After two to three weeks, I think it’s too soon to say, particularly, in the United States of America where the popularity rating of the oaf the Oval Office still remains in the forties, where voter suppression is still a reality as signified by what happened in the primaries in the state of Georgia just a few days ago. But, certainly, I think we must keep the pressure on because this is no time to rest on our laurels. This is a time to motor ahead.

Jacqueline Luqm…: Hmm. I mean, I really appreciate, Dr. Horne, you tying all of these historical truths that have been just absolutely hidden from most people for us together in this moment because I do agree with you that we cannot rest on whatever accomplishments, however small, that they have been allowed to let us believe that we’ve achieved in these last few weeks with the little bits of changes in policy that have been implemented. We have much, much more work to do. And I thank you so much for your time and helping us understand just where we are in this moment, and why this moment is so important. So, thank you for joining me.

Dr. Gerald Horn…: Thank you for inviting me.

Jacqueline Luqm…: And this is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network in the belly of the beast, Washington DC, telling you to stay angry, my friends, stay in these streets and stay the course.