After temporarily removing Christopher Columbus statues from Chicago parks, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced on Aug. 12 the “Project to Assess Memorials and Monuments in the City’s Public Art Collection.” Members of this project will form an advisory committee with local artists, academics and public officials to promote “racial healing and historical reckoning” for the Chicago community through final recommendations for existing and new monuments.
This announcement represents a dramatic reversal from July, when Lightfoot sent in police to protect a Columbus statue as protesters tried to topple it. The Chicago police officers used chemical agents and batons on protesters to disperse them, even throwing the bicycles that protesters were using as shields back at the group. What will Lightfoot’s process of healing and reckoning entail in a city demanding racial justice from the city’s first Black woman mayor?
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If Lightfoot and other mayors want to reckon with the history of white supremacy and heal from it, these statues should be removed from their cities permanently.
Historical reckoning involves recognizing that when colonizers and Confederate generals are put on pedestals, they are venerations of violence. Columbus, for example, routinely cut off the ears, noses and tongues of both Spaniards and native people and endorsed selling 9- and 10-year-old girls into sexual slavery. Robert E. Lee punished enslaved people when they attempted to escape by first lacerating the flesh on their backs with whips, then washing those wounds with brine. Pedestals are not selective in what they memorialize; it is these acts as much as any others that are uplifted on granite and ensconced in bronze.
Violence and racism in the past, therefore, is an inextricable part of what is being celebrated and enshrined by these monuments. A statue’s meaning, at the same time, is not static, and representations of men like Stonewall Jackson and Juan de Oñate have ballooned, shifted and transformed in meaning. Columbus statues exist across the United States, even though he never set foot in North America. Monuments to the Confederacy — a polity that lasted only five years — can be found as distant from its 11 member states as Wisconsin, Idaho and even Ontario. These memorials are tasked with commemorating much more than their historical counterparts accomplished. They evoke a false nostalgia for an imaginary idea of the past when violence in service of white domination was supposedly acceptable.
If reckoning with historical facts suggests that these statues should be taken down, racial healing requires it. These monuments are part of an urban infrastructure that is violent and deleterious to Black and brown people. Public health scholars have found a striking but consistent narrative that explains the ways racism and discrimination affect health. Public health scholar Arline Geronimus coined the “weathering hypothesis” that suggests that Black people experience early health deterioration or wear-and-tear on their bodies. The cumulative impact of marginalization, economic adversity and social disregard by American society consequently can cause disproportionate physiological deterioration on the human body.
Now, in the midst of a global pandemic that is disproportionately affecting communities of color, activists place their bodies in harm’s way to fight for racial equality. We are watching as their bodies, their health and their interests are under attack by police officers protecting statues idolizing oppression. These monuments ought not be protected by any public official while their existence does wear and tear on some bodies, especially when protection takes the form of breaking and bruising other bodies. The health consequences of these monuments are both slow and fast — due to the pernicious effects of racism that founded and maintain so many of this country’s institutions (and statues).
Neither reckoning nor healing will come from a drawn-out discussion behind closed doors. Healing starts with seeing these monuments as sites where both visible and invisible harms are actively perpetuated. If harm reduction and accountability are the goal, the statues should be removed immediately. This ought not be up for debate.
Chelsey Carter is a doctoral candidate in sociocultural anthropology at Washington University. Allison Mickel is an assistant professor of anthropology in the department of sociology and anthropology at Lehigh University.