News, What's Race Got To Do With It?

What’s race got to do with it? UNC emails highlight views on Confederate statue controversy

Editor’s Note: This is part of an occasional series of NC Policy Watch blog posts examining disproportionate impacts on race — in the environment, education, the courts and other sectors — and the structural issues that lead to these inequalities.

My story this week on the main Policy Watch site examines hundreds of UNC Board of Governors emails concerning the ongoing controversy over “Silent Sam” – the only Confederate monument on a UNC campus.

The emails were sent last summer in the wake of deadly white supremacist violence in Charlottesville and protesters toppling a Confederate statue in Durham. They give some insight into how fractured, contentious and backbiting relations have gotten on the UNC Board of Governors. But it’s worth remembering that UNC President Margaret Spellings and UNC Chancellor Carol Folt touched off the political firestorm at the center of the story by reaching out to Gov. Roy Cooper to convene the N.C. Historical Commission to decide the statue’s fate.

A majority of the board signed on to a letter that called the gesture “weak” and “hand-wringing,” suggesting that the university should meet protests that might threaten the statue not with a discussion of how to deal with the statue but by arresting the protesters.

It would later be revealed that Spellings and UNC Chancellor Carol Folt joked the University of Texas – in Spellings’ native Lone Star state – was “smarter” for immediately taking down their statues while North Carolina’s university system is mired in state-level political fight over the matter with no simple solutions.

The movement to remove the “Silent Sam” statue from UNC’s campus is very diverse. Students, staff, professors, alumni and even members of the UNC Board of Governors from various racial backgrounds have argued that the statue is racially offensive. But as emphasized in an interview with Dr. Valerie Johnson, a Bennett College professor who taught on UNC’s campus and is now on the historical commission, the greatest burden of the issue rests with Black people who are confronted with a monument to the confederacy on the campus where they work and study.

“If you have a big, gigantic statue to something that touts the supremacy of one group over another, that’s not a true reflection of the history,” Johnson said in her interview with Policy Watch. “You have one single view of that history.”

“I know this is a point of contention,” Johnson said. “Because some say the Civil War was an honorable cause. But for those of us who believe in the Union and understand what was at stake, it was seditious activity.”

“We can have conversation about that, but if that’s the only statue that is there, the only thing that is interpreting that aspect of history, you will get folks who recapitulate that – that it was an honorable endeavor, an honorable war,” Johnson said. “I want that to be in contention.It was not okay to enslave other humans. It’s still not okay. Full stop. Period.”

For Johnson and other professors from a large and growing list of departments at UNC and beyond, reducing the conversation about “Silent Sam” to one of law and order and the need to simply arrest protesters is offensive on multiple levels.

As Durham District Attorney Roger Echols made clear in a statement on those charged with toppling a Confederate statue in his city, the issue is far more complicated. This is from Echols’ statement:

A just resolution must also include balancing accountability for the actual destruction of property and violation of the law with the climate in which these actions were undertaken. Justice requires that I must take into account the pain of the recent events in Charlottesville and the pain in Durham and the nation. Justice requires that I consider that Durham citizens have no proper recourse for asking our local government to relocate or remove this monument. Justice also requires that I be aware that asking people to be patient and to let various government institutions address injustice is sometimes asking more than those who have been historically ignored, marginalized or harmed by a system cane bare.”

UNC Board of Governors member David Powers, in an email to other board members, referred to the protest movement as “a bunch of spoiled kids” who should have more important things to do than protest a “block of stone.”

Among those who are actually part of the movement to remove “Silent Sam” are representatives from UNC-Chapel Hill’s own  Anthropology, History, Art & Art History, Religious Studies and English and Comparative Literature departments. The History department’s statement on the statue gets to the heart of the racially weighted debate on the issue:

For more than a century it has stood in the most conspicuous public space on our campus. Then and now, the location of the monument speaks to the intent of its creators to ensure that the heritage they commemorated would have pride of place at the front door of the state’s flagship university. While they shared a veneration of slavery, the ‘Old South,’ the Confederacy, and the ideology of white supremacy, many of their contemporaries in North Carolina and elsewhere did not.

From its inception, the monument was exclusionary and offered a highly selective interpretation of the nation’s history. In the twenty-first century that interpretation is so incompatible with the principles we faculty and this university strive to uphold that the continued presence of the monument in its current location is a threat to the safety of the people of our university and a daily affront.

Moved to an appropriate place, the ‘Silent Sam’ monument can become a useful historical artifact with which to teach the history of the university and its still incomplete mission to be ‘the People’s University.’ Until then, the monument will continue to promote malicious values that have persisted too long on this campus, in this state, and in this nation.”

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