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Dear Decaturish – In Confederate monument discussion, all options stink

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Dear Decaturish – In Confederate monument discussion, all options stink

After the Stand With Charlottesville candlelight vigil on August 13. 2017, in Decatur, Ga., attendees gather to discuss the controversial "Lost Cause" monument in Decatur Square.
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After the Stand With Charlottesville candlelight vigil on August 13. 2017, in Decatur, Ga., attendees gather to discuss the controversial “Lost Cause” monument in Decatur Square.

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Dear Decaturish,

The DeKalb County Commission took their lumps this morning, as one would expect of our glorious public servants, by choosing not to run screaming from the room when confronted by demands to remove the confederate monument defacing our venerable courthouse square.

The monument itself is bland. It’s boring. It’s almost as though the people who erected it were embarrassed by it, so striking is its dullness. The Butler Marble and Granite Company in Marietta dropped their first attempt at an obelisk here in 1907 and cracked it into a thousand pieces. Perhaps everyone decided they should deliver a second one that no one would miss if it happened again.

Nonetheless, Decatur’s confederate obelisk is one of a parade of monuments to disgrace raised by the United Daughters of the Confederacy after the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, designed to mark territory reclaimed by white supremacists for Jim Crow and the noose. It stands as a testament to the county’s ignominy of the day.

Right now, it exists to make elected officials squirm.

The real travails of leadership start when facing a room full of people shouting “do something!” and all the options stink.

Unlike Charlottesville or New Orleans, cities and counties in Georgia hoping to mow their statuary down face a state law that prohibits the removal of war monuments. That law is the product of yet another compromise borne of the Confederate flag wars of the late 1990’s. In return for getting the rebel battle flag off the Georgia state flag, legislators agreed to leave monuments alone.

The obelisk cannot be “relocated, removed, concealed, obscured, or altered in any fashion,” according to the law. The law allows for “appropriate measures for the preservation, protection, and interpretation of such monuments or memorials.”

The law does not define what “appropriate measures” are. Funny how that works.

Folks are criticizing commissioners for not speaking out and declaring bold action. But consider their options.

The commission can take the obelisk down and make the state sue them … a suit they will probably lose, but one they might be able to drag out for a while. Meanwhile, the five to 10 percent of the county that’s on the rightwing lunatic fringe will excoriate them in ways that may draw national attention.

They can say that they’re going to leave it alone, which will make them look like lily-livered cowards to the five-to-10 percent of the public that would still vote for Cynthia McKinney in this county if she ran again – a group of people that tends to vote in primaries – and lose what passes for progressive street cred.

They can lobby the state for an exception to the law so that they can move it into a museum or a cemetery, which would be tedious, unlikely to work when Democrats can’t manage to crack a third of the state legislature, and elevates the despised state Rep. Vernon Jones … who has decided to announce legislation to create a study committee to look into the issue. Because of course he did.

Or, the commission can surround the monument with plaques describing the evils of antebellum slavery in DeKalb County and the perfidy of Jim Crow and the Civil War’s manifest failings, which is probably – probably – legal but will satisfy no one, particularly people who come to county commission meetings dreaming of blowing up the thing like the Bartman Baseball. And even this relatively milquetoast response requires legal research.

All of this, on an issue that paves no road, pays no cop, enforces no building code, clothes not one who is naked and feeds no one who is hungry. Politically, this whole thing is a loser for any official. So of course they smiled and listened.

The shrill public debate over the Confederate memorials isn’t about slavery. It’s about the degree to which our society should tolerate the symbols and substance of white supremacy. The fight is a demonstration of how powerfully people will resist change when racial superiority is on the line.

Right now, a black person with a college degree is as likely to be unemployed as a white person who never set foot on a college campus, and a black person with a clean criminal record is less likely to be called into a job interview than a white person with a recent felony conviction. Even as Decatur wrestles with a wave of gentrification that has turned a majority-black city into a majority white one, it’s worth remembering that white flight and housing discrimination has left the average black family with about a tenth of the total wealth of the average white family. And, of course, we are well aware now about unfair disparities in arrests, convictions, sentencing and life outcomes after prison for people of color compared to white people.

My personal hope is that we leapfrog right past the fight over symbols and start getting to the substance. I would like to see some creative suggestions for legislation that attacks racial injustice directly, to be done in the name of repudiating the symbolism of these monuments. Put some norm-challenging antidiscrimination law on the table, and let’s see if the legislature starts to view a change on their defense of the monuments as the fallback position.

– George Chidi

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