As protests and uprisings sweep across the nation and world, America’s profane aesthetics face extinction — desecrations of Christopher Columbus, Robert E Lee and Frank Rizzo, all symbols of whiteness and white supremacy, force imperialism, racism, and capitalism to see further days of reckoning and perhaps one day, “The End of Policing.”
In Darkwater, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote “the discovery of personal whiteness is a 19th and 20th century matter… This assumption that all whiteness alone is inherently and obviously better than browness or tan leads to curious acts… What’s the effect on a man or a nation when it comes passionately to believe such an extraordinary dictum as this?”
E. Frances White compared James Baldwin’s and Toni Morrison’s perspectives on white identity construction: “For Baldwin, whiteness was about a false claim on innocence that depended on the demonization of blackness. Both Baldwin and Morrison expose the fragility of whiteness, and in the process disrupt any notion of pure whiteness, distinct from, and in opposition to, blackness.”
In regards to white privilege, Toni Morrison remarked, “So scary are the consequences of the collapse [of it] that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.”
Statue desecration strikes a nerve and makes the knees tremble for many white supremacists that believe in protecting the permanence of white superiority found in unassailable figures. On May 31, the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument was removed in the city of Birmingham. Just one day later in Fort Myers, Florida, the Sons of Confederate Veterans removed a bust of Robert E Lee. By weeks end, Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama, Florida, Arkansas, and North Carolina all implemented speedy plans for monument and statue removal in their respective cities.
After protesters toppled an eight-foot statue of Jefferson Davis, he was hauled onto a tow truck like a heavy piece of trash. This and more removals created a backlash of alt-right counter-protesters prepared to defend remaining statues around the country. More moderate citizens defended their right to comfort through expressing their own “pride of heritage and history” as seen in the defense of Davis monuments elsewhere.
Theodore Allen wrote that “the white race must be understood not simply as a social construct or a genetic phenomenon, but as a formation of ruling class social control.” David Roediger, on working-class racism in the United States argued “whiteness cannot be explained simply with reference to economic advancement, rather white working-class racism is underpinned by a complex series of psychological and ideological mechanisms that forged the identities of white workers in opposition to Blacks.”
Statues of centuries past serving as both symbols of “ruling class social control” and as “ideological mechanisms” undoubtedly harness a collective whiteness and more contemporary symbols have entered the conversation. On June 3, Philadelphia’s statue of Frank Rizzo was removed by the city after protesters started to tear it down. On that same day in Richmond, Virginia, the appalling 75-foot spectacle of Robert E. Lee was turned into a majestic “counter-spectacle” of wonder, featuring dozens of spray painted tags and the light-projected wordings of “BLM” and “No Justice No Peace” along with the image of George Floyd.
These were merely a fraction of the US confronting its “image pollution” with the next wave of statue removal already afoot. At this moment in history, the visual representation of Christopher Columbus faces worldwide extinction as “sculptural encounters” will continue for weeks to come. In Barcelona, the statute of Christopher Columbus dating back to 1888 appeared on Google Maps as the “enslaver and colonizer.”
Since 1992, actions against Columbus monuments have been rather common. Sociologist James W. Loewen noted that generations of students that learned about Christopher Columbus before 1992 were fed essential “efforts of the upper-class to commemorate their history and to feel better psychologically” while holding on to power. For generations, accepting US history as a “civil religion” passed for civic engagement. Statues are forms of cultural and political capital and the dominant group resents their challenge and destruction.
Robert E. Lee statues, like Columbus ones, were largely parts of the “preservation of images and language that reflected the attitudes and ideas of the time.” Lee’s tributes were erected “during the nadir of race relations from 1890 beyond 1920” when “white supremacists had the power to determine how the Civil War memory was structured within the South.” Groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans distorted history as a way to continue the Civil War.” Loewen might say that Americans putting up additional statues like Frank Rizzo “are really admitting failure of their own historical imagination.”
Joshua Zeitz points out the peculiarity of American memory when he writes, “In Germany you won’t see neo-Nazis converging on a monument to Reinhard Heydrich or Adolf Hitler, because no such statues exist. The country long ago came to grips with the full weight of its history. But you’ll find Nazis and Klansmen in Virginia, circling a statue of Robert E. Lee, a traitor who raised arms against his own country in defense of white supremacy.”
Further, statue defensiveness reveals something else about the political culture of the United States. Claudia L. Bushman says Americans “have continually seized on Columbus and his story for their own purposes, inventing through their commemorations of his life a cultural tradition that supersedes that actual life, largely ignored for the first 300 years after his landfall.”
In Washington, D.C. the Columbus Fountain in front of Union Station says “to the memory of Christopher Columbus whose high faith and indomitable courage gave to mankind.” In Indianapolis, a bust of Columbus reads: “born in Genoa in 1451, he discovered the land of opportunity and freedom… Preserving it for humanity is the perennial genius abiding in the Italian race.”
Even more interesting perhaps is to see how consistent this theme of race extends more broadly well into the 20th century with Frank Rizzo. What explained Rizzo’s initial popularity in Philadelphia?
Frank Rizzo became a Philadelphia city police officer in 1943. Within a short period of time he forged a reputation for draconian methods against black people “adopting a storm-trooper approach.” According to Stefano Luconi, Rizzo was later “known for arresting Malcolm X and his bodyguards when they came to Philadelphia and also ordered his men to charge African-Americans protesting against the exclusion of nonwhite students from Girard College.” Rizzo cynically and ruthlessly arrested African-American teenaged activists. Although Stefano Luconi, an excellent scholar, completely disagrees, in my estimation Rizzo was both a Columbus and Lee statue come to life. Rizzo was a modern-day villain of the 20th century.
Teen Vogue alludes to Luconi’s reminder that “Italian immigrants to the United States were long considered by many white Americans as nonwhite” or in-between color status, however it’s long been argued that the Italo- Ethiopian Conflicts “helped initiate the process by which Italian-Americans eventually contained an identity or white self-image.” Christopher Columbus Day celebrations in Philadelphia during the times of Frank Rizzo were steeped in whiteness and fraught with an intentional white privilege. District Attorney Arlen Specter articulated a harsh reality concerning Rizzo’s imperial behavior — it “resulted in black Philadelphians feeling written out of the social contract.”
To Luconi, the 1960s witnessed Italian-Americans joining “forces with other immigrant groups (including Irish-Americans) from European backgrounds.” This enabled the development of “a white consciousness and an effort to curb African-American claims to alleged encroachments.” Furthermore, this saw whites “adopting a law and order view of the functions of the municipal government, over the expansion of social services, thus becoming the chief purpose of the city administration for white Philadelphians.” Frank Rizzo, the cop turned machine politician came to signify Euro-American Philadelphian whiteness well into the 1980s and beyond.
As a result, students largely in the greater Philadelphia area’s whitopias received general cultural malpractice or a miseducation in terms of American history along with the failure to recognize how the local patriotic orthodoxy reinforced authoritarian institutions.
It amounted to what Henry Giroux calls, “The Violence of Organized Forgetting” or what Loewen refers to as, the “Officer Friendly version of US History.” Loewen states that “we do not protect children from controversy by offering only an Officer Friendly analysis — all we do is make school irrelevant to the major issues of the day.”
The Rizzo era helped produce a second generation suburban culture of “heroification.” False memories fostered an atrocious recipe for disaster rendering educational upbringings with regrettable and deleterious results in the Keystone State.
It has long been understood, very well historically, that police forces and law and order mechanisms helped to create master race narratives that protected capital, waged war, as well as monitored the public and private life of its citizens – all while maintaining a highly stratified society.
The Garner-Floyd-Taylor Rebellions are in part reactions to the dangerous values inherent in cultural archetypes that emphasize a glorification of Columbus, Lee, and Rizzo. The subtle and outright utilizations of racial politics found in statues that normalize the militarized assault on people of color around the world are real in “The White Space.”
Thankfully the present and the future are not having it, as statue desecration continues a valuable and widespread cultural shift. No matter how intense white fragility or people of all races reject the ongoing constructive uprisings, the perception of resistance as a destructive form of vandalism is falling out of favor.
Activist Chelsea Higgs Wise recently stated that, “the Christopher Columbus narrative represents the first leg of the mythical heroes relay race in which the participants pass the baton driving exploitation of land and labor.”
This baton was passed to Robert E. Lee and then to Frank Rizzo, but with their toppling it revitalizes a hope for a new tomorrow without white supremacy normalized across our landscape.