A lot has happened in the year since our article, Set in Stone? Predicting Confederate Monument Removal was published. In the spring of 2020, after the death of George Floyd on May 25th in Minneapolis, people took to the streets to protest police brutality. Across the world people protested the symbols and statues that honored slave traders and here in the United States, they took down Confederate Monuments. A year ago we wondered why there were so many monuments still standing (93% according to our records). Then, on January 6th, the Confederate Flag entered the United States Capitol for the first time. Below, we underscore the connection between our work and the Capitol insurrection.
Although the monuments honor Confederate leaders, they were not erected right after the Civil War ended. Instead, most of them were installed in two waves. The first was in the early 1900s and the second was in the 1950s and 1960s. This suggests that the goal of these monuments was less about remembering the Confederacy and more about countering Black demands for Civil Rights. That is, they wanted to remind Blacks to stay in their place.
When we set out to do our research, we created a dataset of Confederate monuments building on data from the Southern Poverty Law Center, CNN, 538, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. Most were erected in the early 1900s, as much to defend Jim Crow as to celebrate the Confederacy. According to our dataset, and as stated above, a majority of the statues are located in the former Confederacy (roughly 91 percent); 43 percent are statues rather than plaques, flags, or other memorials. About 18 percent are on public grounds, typically at courthouses; the rest are on private property, where public officials can do little to remove them. That may be why, more recently, dozens of new Confederate monuments are being installed on private property.
A year ago, state laws prevented many cities and towns from removing Confederate monuments in public places in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Most of these laws were passed in the early 2000s — although North Carolina and Alabama passed theirs in 2015 — by Republican-led legislatures that wanted to stop local governments from removing those monuments. While 130 additional ones were removed as of September 2020, there are currently still more than 1,000 Confederate monuments in these states.
In these states, removing the monuments requires both residents’ protests and local governments’ legal action. Not surprisingly, of the 139 monuments removed at the time of our research, 82 (or 59 percent) were in states without such bans. Despite these constraints, we saw many more monuments come down last summer. Since May of 2020, over 100 of these monuments have been removed across the United States.
What the events of the past summer highlight is the power of the people we captured in our dataset. The removals last summer came directly from the people and their protests. They did not rely on the local or state government rules to bring about the change they wanted to see in their local communities. Inspired by these removals, Congress amended the National Defense Authorization Act over President Trump’s veto to rename the ten military bases named after Confederate leaders within three years.
As argued here, here, here, and here, the recent invasion of the Capitol reminds us about what these monuments symbolize: white supremacy. Emboldened by the President himself, Trump supporters breached and desecrated federal property (exposing themselves and others to the coronavirus) in the latest of many failed attempts to overturn both the popular and Electoral College results in the 2020 election. As shameful as the Capitol riot was, it displayed the raw motives of white supremacy out in the open. Despite the 45th President telegraphing his intentions to stay in power even if he lost, and his legal team’s flimsy voting-fraud challenges in battleground states, apologists have told us many times to stop being “triggered” by Trump’s refusal to accept the election outcome. Despite ample evidence of the president’s bigotry, 70 million people casted ballots for him anyway. The acts of sedition following the 2020 presidential election makes all of this more clear and may actually yield the war within the GOP that has been building for a long time.
The attack at the Capitol displayed the same support for white supremacy evident in the refusal to remove Confederate monuments. And the fact that the mob was dispersed with suspiciously leniency demonstrates selective willingness to respond to public protest with force. Ironically, the insurrectionists might be punished by the executive order that Trump issued to protect monuments.
The events of 2020 make clear how far America needs to go when it comes to addressing racism. In a video-recorded rebuke of the insurrection, Arnold Schwarzenegger mentioned that democracy, like the steel of a sword, gets stronger when tempered; failed attempts to undermine democracy force the government to reinforce itself as it recovers. The Austrian-born actors’ comments, unusual for a former governor of the president’s party, demonstrates how good people can become complicit in racism, even comparing the Proud Boys’ behavior during President-Elect Biden’s certification.
As Schwarzenegger recognizes, democracies don’t exist in a vacuum. The citizens are the ones being tempered, and the authoritarianism in the failed insurrection was fueled from the same racism evident in the refusal to remove Confederate monuments. Racial and ethnic minorities are particularly attuned to this tempering process because the consequences of anti-democratic efforts tend to affect them disproportionately. As our study of confederate symbols demonstrates, citizens of color know better than others the extent to which racism and authoritarianism go hand in hand. Given the mainstreaming of southern white identity, the resolutions to racial conflicts necessary to prevent authoritarianism will be hard won in the days ahead.
Andrea Benjamin is an associate professor in the Clara Luper Department of African and African American Studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of “Racial Coalition Building in Local Elections: Elite Cues and Cross-Ethnic Voting” (Cambridge University Press, 2019).
Ray Block Jr. (@rayblock1) is an associate professor in the department of political science and the department of African American studies at Pennsylvania State University, and co-author (with Sekou Franklin) of “Losing Power: African Americans and Racial Polarization in Tennessee Politics” (University of Georgia Press, 2020).
Jared Clemons (@jayctigerfan) is a PhD student in the department of political science at Duke University.
Chryl Laird is an assistant professor in the department of government and legal studies at Bowdoin College, and co-author (with Ismail White) of “Steadfast Democrats: How Social Forces Shape Black Political Behavior” (Princeton University Press, 2020).Julian Wamble (@jwamble) is an assistant professor in the department of political science at George Washington University.
Julian Wamble (@jwamble) is an assistant professor in the department of political science at George Washington University.