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We must stand up to ‘symbols of hate’

Commentary: A monumental issue

In his opinion article “Toppling the dissent on monuments” (July 22), Stephen Kershnar closes his piece by suggesting that federal, state, and local governments should “give our past its due” by leaving in place “memorials” to past leaders in public spaces and buildings.

He reflects that (white) citizens in the south have a right to maintain statues in public spaces that memorialize their “past beloved leaders.” I would agree that these statues should not be destroyed or placed in some warehouse and forgotten, but rather they should be placed in museums where their appropriate place in history and the racist ideology that they represent can be adequately explained. The “beloved leaders” that Dr. Kershnar refers to led a revolt against our constitution to uphold a system that enslaved millions of African Americans and turned a blind eye to their rape and murder. When a community leaves these memorials in place, I would argue that it reflects that community’s continued failure to take actions that acknowledge the dignity of all of its community members rather than a privileged segment of that society.

The moral questioning around these Confederate statues, the naming of military bases for individuals who advocated for the enslavement of African Americans, the offensive naming of products and sports teams with racial stereotypes – this questioning is important as it reflects that we as a country are finally coming to terms with racism that continues to be prevalent in American society. I do not see this as a Republican or Democratic issue. This is an American question – what kind of country do we want to leave the next generation?

Dr. Kershnar cites the work of Dr. Dan Demetriou, a professor in Minnesota who has studied tribalism and identity, in support of his view that these memorials to Confederate leaders should not be removed. Dr. Kushner writes in summarizing a point made by Dr. Demetriou, “People make and keep a shared identity by celebrating their past.” What Dr. Kershnar fails to question in this argument is what is meant by “people” in this context. “People” in this discussion of memorials almost, if not entirely, in the past excluded those who were not a part of the white majority. I do not believe many whose ancestors were enslaved, whose families that were told they had to drink from a different water fountain or use a different bathroom, whose families feared the lynching of their sons, were a part of a community’s discussions on building a monument or dedicating a building to a Confederate soldier. Dr. Kershnar presents Dr. Demetriou as a scholar presenting an unbiased argument around questions of race and identity. Dr. Demetriou’s argument around tribalism and race, however, should be presented in the context of his larger views on race that many in his own community have found offensive and protested against. Dr. Demetriou has, for example, claimed that immigrants “on average have IQs lower than natives and low skills.”

Discussions about memorials, the Confederate flag, and the dedication of buildings are important as they help us to ask ourselves who we want to be as a nation going forward. When we talk about community, when we talk about human dignity, we should have in mind all members of that community.

When we see symbols of hate like the Confederate flag at our community festivals being sold on belt buckles and caps and as flags to be hung at our neighbor’s home, we should be asking ourselves if it isn’t finally time to stand up and say that this does not reflect who we want to be as people.

Jason Zevenbergen is a Fredonia resident.

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