Consider this: supporters of Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson say that these generals, among others, were defending their states and their homes. Fine. So did General Eugen Rommel, the desert fox, of the Third Reich. So did the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack by the Japanese, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.
They were defending their homes and nations. They were courageous and skilled warriors, too. Yet there are no monuments in America to their honor and glory in their war against America. There are no such statues in Germany or Japan either!
The fact that they fought to protect nations that asserted Nazism and imperialism and killed American soldiers is enough to prevent statues from being erected in their honor. But Lee and Jackson are different! Why?
Because to American social conservatives what Lee and Jackson fought against (union without slavery as Lincoln came to understand the war to be about) is not noble beyond dispute. More significantly, what Lee and Jackson fought to protect (states rights’ and union with slavery) is not evil beyond dispute to social conservatives.
Consider what statues are designed to memorialize. Memorial statues are designed to honor some person or concept that is worthy of national esteem. That’s why Lincoln, Washington, and Jefferson have national monuments.
That’s why the Statue of Liberty dominates the Hudson. That’s why Hamilton has a statue in front of the Department of Treasury building. That’s why the U.S. Capital is littered with statues of past Congressmen, Senators, and other great American figures and heroes. That’s why Chief Justice John Marshall has a statue in the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court has statues outside of the building honoring the many sources of law and justice.
And in this company, social conservatives put Lee and Jackson! Men whose claim to fame was to burn down America to build a slave republic on its ashes.
But here are two subtleties of the implicit racism undergirding the Civil War statue controversy.
First, note that when social conservatives talk about the Civil War, they talk about the southern generals (not the Confederacy) who fought the Union — note, the “Union” not “America.” The point is in social conservative theory nobility is attached to the word “America,” not the word “Union.”
This supplements the second subtly. Social conservatives see Lee and Jackson and other Confederate generals as men who fought against the Union — not America — and that fight was over the black question: slavery. Because the generals only fought the Union (nothing noble) and did not fight against America (all noble), social conservatives assert that these generals can be honored. The fact that they fought to preserve slavery (and all its assumptions) is of no consequence to social conservative orthodoxy. Remember, they don’t honor Rommel or Yamamoto.
But social conservatives’ denials of the cause of the war — the evils of slavery and the proposition of black inferiority — notwithstanding, the implicit racism regarding the Confederate monuments lay in the failure to admit the purpose of erecting them in the first place.
They were not erected days and weeks after the war or even days or weeks after the fall of Reconstruction. They were erected across the South in the first two decades of the 20th century at the height of Jim Crow, the lynching of blacks on sight, and the marching of the Klan down Pennsylvania Avenue, and they were used to defend the myth of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy.
They were erected to honor the men who engaged in war to defend the creation of a slave republic, which was to be built on the destruction of America — a constitutional republic based on individual freedom.
They were also erected as a political message to remind blacks in the South to stay in their place. The implicit racism in defending these monuments and disregarding why they were erected in the first place (not to mention defending the Confederate flag) is in the failure to acknowledge the evil of Jim Crow or to act as if it didn’t happen or to act like it doesn’t matter.
Arthur Garrison is an associate professor of criminal justice at Kutztown University and author of the upcoming book, "Chained to the System: The History and Politics of Black Incarceration in America."