What does racial justice look like?
Is it the rebranding of a racist team logo? Is it a Black Lives Matter painting on a city street? Is it a social media post with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter? Is it the redesigning of a state flag bearing oppressive symbolism? Is it the removal of a Confederate statue?
These are all pieces of a large, complex puzzle. But with only a few pieces connected, the picture is far from complete. From the removal of Confederate monuments to the creation of BLM murals across the globe, the critical role of art has given us a faint idea of what racial justice should look like. Like a puzzle piece by itself, these actions on their own aren’t going to solve the problem of racial injustice. Putting them together, however, gives us the framework out of which we can determine what else it will take to bring an end to the racial inequality poisoning our lives.
Building upon these tiny victories will take a unified approach to decide where other pieces of the puzzle will fit. But what do these small victories entail? How will they help us achieve the bigger picture of eliminating racism from our institutions and from the hearts of those stuck in the thorns of their prejudices?
Regardless of your stance on the symbolic reform depicted in the relocation of statues, or the bold yellow letters spelling out “BLACK LIVES MATTER” on city streets, we cannot deny that the controversy generated by the artistic portrayal of civil unrest has given life to much-needed conversations about race and its unrelenting history. These conversations can be uncomfortable and confrontational, leading us to avoid them altogether. Yet, having conversations is how we can understand the plight of other humans—hardships that we may not have experienced and will never experience. It allows us to not only feel sympathy for others, but also develop the compassion to lend a helping hand.
As the removals of hateful symbolism spark numerous controversies, conversations on racial oppression have become drastically more frequent, prompting many people to reassess whether or not their city's "heroes" deserve to be honored. For instance, in Ventura, California, the city council held a 6-0 unanimous vote to remove the statue of Father Junípero Serra, which stood valiantly in front of the city hall. Having passed by it numerous times, I used to regard this monument as nothing more than a cool-looking statue watching over the beautiful downtown district of Ventura. I thought it was merely a monument that honored a person who helped build the city, which he did… but not how I imagined.
Amidst the rise of resentment toward Father Serra’s statue throughout California, the controversy highlighted the missionary’s dark history that is overshadowed by his praise. Had it not been for the uproar over Serra’s statue, I wouldn’t have learned about his dissolute role in the Spanish colonization of Native Americans, who were forced to choose between keeping their culture or their lives. I would’ve remained blind to the deceiving history behind that statue, a piece of art that was nothing more than a decoration in my eyes.
I can’t imagine the sheer number of other people who remain uninformed about the monuments they walk by daily without a second thought. How many people pass by the monuments of Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson, thinking they’re nothing more than symbols of "Southern heritage" that deserve commemoration? By refusing to take down these symbols of oppression, we risk not having important conversations about the incomplete narratives that the statues depict. We risk not educating the youth about the untold stories hidden under the facades of these “honorable” historical figures.
Some people believe that removing these statues will erase history. But, by keeping up these statues, don’t we strengthen a one-sided story that erases the history of those who were brutally terrorized by these same figures? Don’t we erase history when our textbooks overlook the heinous imperfections that made this country what it is today?
The truth behind our abhorrent statues will never be brought to light for as long as we continue to uphold them in our streets. By honoring dishonorable people, we push the message that it is okay to glorify those who fought to keep Black people in shackles. We must channel our indignation toward undeserving monuments because we want the world to resonate with our fight for racial justice, and not with the immoral values bolstered by the statues of glorified racists.
While the removals of statues themselves will not solve the problem of racism, the conversations catalyzed by these deeds will inspire people to act. History is not being erased, but revealed through the elimination of false imagery. By understanding the atrocious chapters of America’s past, we will be better equipped to create a brighter future. Don't be mistaken: the fight for racial justice does not end when the statues topple over. This is only the beginning of what will be a grueling battle against the hateful ideologies plaguing our society.