Time to Say Goodbye to Robert E Lee


You probably have an opinion on this. I’m no authority, but here’s mine, for what it’s worth.


As a group, black people have been marginalized and economically disadvantaged due to the legacy of slavery. Confederate flags and statues of confederacy heroes serve to disenfranchise black Americans. Why do some people still want to display them? To my knowledge, there are no statues in this country honoring King George III, the reigning British King during the American Revolutionary War which was won by those who wanted to secede from British rule. I couldn’t find evidence that there are any statues honoring South Vietnamese leaders (the losers in the Vietnamese civil war) in Vietnam today. Why should we have anything commemorating the losers of the American Civil War? (Had the South won and seceded, would they still have slavery today? Would the Axis powers have been defeated in WWII if the United States were two separate countries in the 1940’s?)


Robert E Lee was considered a great general. If he had led the armies of the North instead of the South, our civil war might have been short-lived, and many lives saved. Some years ago, I visited civil war sites and learned that in the latter years of the war, the North and South traded prisoners of war in the interest of humanitarianism. That practice came to an unfortunate end when Robert E Lee refused to trade any captured Northern soldiers who were black, a blatantly racist move and not very heroic, IMHO. Yes, it’s time for statues of Robert E Lee and all his Confederate pals to go. That also goes for his flag. It’s not okay to disrespect our black citizens.


The murder of black American George Floyd, repeatedly shown on TV, was until very recently the latest well-publicized illustration of policing gone wrong. As I started to write about this, Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed in Atlanta. Another black man killed by a cop, this time shot in the back twice. There is no shortage of other examples. The existence of cell phone video has put these cases front and center. When this happens, there is talk of police racism, and the need for reform. We’ve seen it before. But this seems to be more intense and widespread. Will this time be different? Will there be more changes?


Watching the demonstrations, it is clear there is a lot of pent up anger. Sure, not all police officers treat minorities badly, but enough do to make black lives more difficult. I'm white and I’ve been pulled over by cops a few times in my life – once for forgetting to put my headlights on, once for speeding, and once for another traffic infraction. I wasn’t happy about it any of those times, but I deserved it. I would be incensed if I was pulled over once a month for exactly nothing. Say I was running late, doing errands before an appointment, and I was pulled over because of the way I looked. I would be burning mad, yet that happens to black males on a regular basis. No harm, you might say. Most of the time they’re inconvenienced, but then allowed to get on with their day. I say it is very harmful. It sends a message to those who are stopped—you aren’t as free as others to live your life without being harassed. The despicable actions of Amy Cooper, the woman who called the police to falsely claim she was being threatened by a black man (while doing her best to sound frightened), underscores the reality of the situation, the ease with which minorities can be targeted.


Some changes in policing have taken place over the past decades. There are far more persons of color on police forces, but that hasn’t solved the problem. Even black officers have been involved in controversial police shootings of black men. Blatant racism can’t be the only problem.


Granted, there are some flat-out racist cops. I believe many police departments do their best to weed them out, but they miss some. How could they not? Racists don’t generally come with a tattoo across their forehead reading “racist.” I don’t know if it will ever be possible to weed them all out, as long as racism exists.


Let’s face it—there are racists in every profession. They are scattered throughout society, but where they land, what job they hold, can have vastly different consequences. If a racist works at McDonalds, a minority customer may have an unpleasant transaction. If a teacher is a racist, minority students may suffer from poor self-esteem and/or may be short-changed in their education, with negative, life-changing results. If a doctor is a racist, a patient may be denied a much-needed analgesic or die from lack of attention. If a cop is a racist, a person may be murdered.


It has been said before, but bears repeating: nobody is born a racist. The main reason people become racist is likely the influence of others, such as parents, friends, and people in the community. Once those feelings are ingrained, they cannot be erased at will. Even recognizing racism in oneself does not enable a person to erase those feelings at will, just like wanting to stop eating unhealthy foods for health reasons doesn’t stop all cravings for a Big Mac and fries.


However, people can resist eating unhealthy foods, and can actively monitor their behavior to avoid acting like racists. One can be nice to minorities, despite an urge to be disrespectful. One can hire a minority for a job despite wanting to hire a less qualified white person. If you’re a cop, you can refrain from pulling a minority over for no reason. That would be a good start.


I listened to many people being interviewed in the aftermath of the George Floyd homicide. One black man commented that he believed police often use excessive force because of fear. In our society, black men are feared more than white men. With fear comes overreaction. Overreaction in the case of a taxi driver means the driver may not pick up a black man hailing a cab, but overreaction on the part of a police officer can have a much more dire consequence. People can try to tell themselves not to be afraid, but if it has been incorporated into their psyche for whatever reason, wishing it away won’t help.


If, as a society, we can remove that fear, we may remove the tendency of some cops to react with excessive force. How to accomplish that is unclear. Let’s stop disenfranchising minorities with public displays honoring the Confederacy, and decrease the incarceration rate of black men by decriminalizing drug use, enforcing sentencing equality, and providing more gainful employment opportunities. With fewer black men in prison, the perception that they are dangerous will likely diminish.


Fifty years ago, prejudice was more out in the open. Many people made no effort to hide their racism, unabashedly using what we now refer to as “the N word.” It takes time to change attitudes. Attitudes have already changed, but, unfortunately, not enough. Yet.


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P.S. Chris Rock is one of my favorite comedians. Some years ago he made a joke aimed at white people: “None of ya would change places with me! And I’m rich! That’s how good it is to be white!” I think he was right.


Watch him yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VJmvfbDdhFg

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