Symbols that loom over public spaces, like the monument celebrating the life and legacy of Confederate General Robert Edward Lee, say much about a community’s collective identity and how it views itself. This is why people in Iraq pulled down the Saddam Hussein statue immediately after the U.S. military defeated him. This is why when the German swastika was blown up in 1945 and never replaced. This is why the Berlin Wall was torn down, the Eiffel Tower erected, and the Great Wall of China built. Today, German is a unified country with a higher standard of living than the US, France is a shining beacon that welcomes immigrants—even in the face of attacks by terrorists who seek to change them—while China is a totalitarian state that is suspicious of outsiders. The symbols that communities create tell us who they are.
When the Confederate flag debate started earlier this year, it surprised me that anyone would vigorously protect such an obvious symbol of white supremacy while denying history and arguing that slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War. But a few weeks ago a friend told me that he regretted going to South Carolina to protest. He realized that the Confederate flag proudly displayed on government buildings all over the “New South” were like warning signs on a minefield: Those signs warn people of the dangers they face when entering that community.
In New Orleans, our most iconic public square, Jackson Square (pictured above), is dedicated to a man who owned a thousand human beings and offered handsome rewards to anyone who captured a person unpatriotic enough to escape to freedom. Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and Generals Lee and P. G. T. Beauregard treasonously fought against the United States in defense of the enslavement of millions and the right of wealthy planters to use free labor. Each man has a statue.
New Orleans was arguably the most important hub in the slave trade, yet there are almost no monuments commemorating these acts or the lives of the enslaved. Likewise, we do not celebrate the lives of United States President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, or Johns Hopkins with elegant public spaces and monuments.
You will know a people by the symbols they embrace. That New Orleans has embraced and protected such clear representations of racism and bigotry should come as no surprise. We know who we are.