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On Statues and Schools and the safe distance of time

If I say “racism is bad”, all but a hateful margin would agree. It’s like saying “food is good” Sure. But the rub is when we try to define what is racist, and what is not.

I’m not concerned with convincing the hateful margin with this post. They’re not reading anyway. But I do think there is a sizable slice of America who would agree with the statement “racism is bad” on its face, but often feel that the conversation turns its gaze to them once we begin to attempt to define where racism starts and ends.

There are those who will tell you that Robert E. Lee was a racist, and frankly, I’m not here to agree or disagree with them, because I didn’t know the man. All we have to judge him by are his actions. From the books and articles I’ve read, here is what I’m comfortable saying: he was a man who is most widely known for his answer to a hard, hard decision: Fight against the United States for the right to, among other things, enslave human beings… or fight against his own home state of Virginia. That’s a choice that I would think would be easy today, but he was making the decision in the 1800s, and I can even concede that–at very least–he didn’t have as much history or information at his fingertips as we do.

Armed with that history and information, we can now read the accounts of slaves who were brutally beaten, raped, sold away from their families as children, and used as objects, tools, animals. Here we can reiterate: “Racism is bad,” and no reasonable person will disagree. This was almost 160 years ago. None of us, none of our grandfathers, even, owned slaves or were slaves. It is easy to say “Racism is bad” when we have enough safe distance from the condemnation that the stench doesn’t get in our clothes.

But it starts to break down after that. The information exists about the segregation laws that followed, the “separate-but-equal” lies of the Jim Crow era (an era, by the way, that gave rise to a stunning majority of the confederate statues and school names that exist today). We have the information available to know about gerrymandering and the redlining of school districts, the devaluation of black wealth via the housing market, the stunning correlation between race and incarceration, especially from the Reagan-era “war on drugs”, the stunning correlation between race and death at the point of a police officer’s weapon, the Trump-emboldened alt-right, the new Dapper Nazi Richard Spencer. 

See, now I’ve stepped from a safe condemnation of a generic evil into a more divisive field of land mines, because we don’t have a 160-year buffer between us and Dylann Roof, or Philando Castille, or James A. Fields, or Heather Heyer.

Right now, we’re standing in it. And the smell is on us. And we have a decision to make, just like Robert E. Lee had a decision. We don’t want to admit that, because admitting it means that it’s on us to start taking action to change it, and that’s hard, especially when it means standing face to face with that hateful margin, and try to make decisions like “is it okay to punch a Nazi in the face, or am I a pacifist?”

That’s a hard, hard decision, and–like Robert E. Lee–we don’t have the benefit of a couple hundred years of future history to help us make that decision. All we have is the past and the now. But I can promise you this: the longer we pretend there’s no decision to be made, the more it looks like we’re content for there to just be a little racism, so long as it doesn’t affect us personally. 

Statues, flags and the naming of schools, streets, parks, and other landmarks have always been an honor. This is not about simply remembering history, and I’ll prove it: I want to tell you about a man nicknamed “Sparky”. He hated the nickname as a child, and would fight anyone who used it. Of course, children are cruel, and so the name stuck throughout his childhood, making him a particularly adept fighter, and tough as a rock. Sparky was a member of the United States Army during World War II, and while he didn’t see any action overseas, his mechanic work here in the U.S. was as important as any other. He was fighting for the good guys.

I want to pause. My grandfather’s name was Jasper. He was 12 when WWII broke out, and kids stuck him with the nickname “Jap”. That’s not only a racial ephithet, but the Japanese were our enemies in WWII, so Jasper Weaver also learned to scrap. He was too young to fight in WWII, but he too served in the armed forces. The story of “Sparky” has some parallels to my own heritage.

Back to Sparky. He moved to Dallas after his time in the military, and as part of his work as a small business owner, he became ingratiated and friendly with a large number of Dallas police officers.

Jasper Weaver was a good guy. I’m not going to make the same argument for Jack “Sparky” Rubenstein, better known as Jack Ruby. He was involved in all manner of shady dealings. But when I say the name Jack Ruby, you don’t think of his time serving the U.S. Army, you don’t think of his friendships on the Dallas police force. You think of one thing: he murdered Lee Harvey Oswalt.

No one wants to erase Jack Ruby from the textbooks. He had a decision to make, and he made the one he thought was best, and that decision is forever part of our history. There’s a museum downtown, and Ruby is well-represented there.

But there aren’t any statues. There aren’t any schools. Why? Because history gives us the perspective of knowing that Ruby’s decision was wrong, and to honor it with a monument… what message would that send?

Our national, state, and local histories are not perfect, and it would be the work of censors to try to erase them. But that’s not what anyone is trying to do here. The removal of the Confederate statues, the renaming of our children’s schools: these are the common-sense actions once you acknowledge that not all history is honored equally. Jack Ruby’s time in the force, it turns out, is overshadowed by his connections to the mafia, prostitution, and the murder of Lee Harvey Oswalt. He made his decision, and history has decided.

Likewise, Robert E. Lee may have been a good man in many ways (interestingly enough, he himself was opposed to the idea of Confederate monuments). But he is best known for making a decision to lead an army against the United States for the right to enslave and subjugate his fellow human beings. We will never erase the embarrassing mark of the Confederacy, nor of slavery, nor of the subsequent and ongoing and current systemic racism from our history, nor should we try (though I should think erasing it from our present and future should be an exponentially less controversial goal). But neither should we allow the most enduring legacy of Lee’s life–a bad decision to lead an armed and treasonous insurrection against the United States for the right to own humans as slaves–be honored with monuments and school names.

It’s time. Make your decision, and stand by it.

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