A new anti-racist icon: Robert E. Lee

A photograph of Breonna Taylor, projected onto the statue of Robert E. Lee in July, 2020

As this tumultuous year comes to an end, the partisan polarity in the US remains and may even have intensified in the wake of the election this month. Just today, a lawyer for President Trump, Joe diGenova, called for the former head of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Chris Krebs to be “drawn and quartered” and then to be taken out and shot. His crime? He had declared the election to have been secure and legitimate.

On the other hand, the massive protests from this summer in the wake of the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other African-Americans at the hands of police officers seem to have subsided. However, here in Richmond, VA, there remains a strong visual reminder of the inequity between Blacks and whites in the US and of the racist history going back to slavery and the Civil War. The NY Times has named that reminder, namely the massive Robert E Lee statue on Monument Avenue, the most influential work of American protest art since World War II. The statue is one of the last remaining monuments of Confederate figures left in the city, the former capital of the Confederate States of America, after almost all others have been either toppled by protesters or ordered removed by the Richmond mayor. Since this summer, the statue has been transformed. No longer a towering reminder of the Confederate “Lost Cause” and of the Jim Crow era of enforced segregation, it is now covered with graffiti, much of it supporting “Black Lives Matter”, protesting police brutality, and evoking the names and faces of Blacks unjustly killed.

Whether the statue will be removed is uncertain. A judge has ruled that the city may remove the statue, although it is on state-owned land. Opponents of removal have vowed to appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court. It seems to me a shame to remove the statue now, as it is currently configured. It has been argued convincingly that the problem with the Confederate statues is that they provide no historical context and imply by their size and prominence that these men so honored are heroic figures, whose actions are to be celebrated. Nothing about the statues indicates they were defenders of slavery. But now there is plenty of context around the Lee statue. It’s not just the messages and art on the statue itself; there are signs and objects that have been placed all around the statue. Images have been projected on the statue that feature Breonna Taylor and others. The intersection where the statue is located has been popularly renamed Marcus-David Peters Circle, in reference to a man who was shot and killed by police in Richmond in 2018 during a mental health crisis.

So the context of racism – and anti-racism – the newly transformed statue represents is abundantly clear.

“Karens”: women only?

Today a “Karen” was criminally indicted. The woman’s name is not Karen, but Amy, Amy Cooper. She appeared as “Karen” in the tweet seen here, posted by Melody Cooper (no relation), the brother of a bird watcher, her brother, Christian. Amy was walking her dog in New York’s Central Park, but contrary to the regulations in that area, her dog was not leashed. Christian asked her to use a leash, to keep the dog from scaring away the birds. She responded by threatening to call 911, telling Christian that she was going to tell the operator that she was being threatened by a black man. She did in fact call, saying “There is a man, African American, he has a bicycle helmet and he is recording me and threatening me and my dog…please send the cops immediately!”. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said today, in announcing the prosecution, “Our office initiated a prosecution of Amy Cooper for falsely reporting an incident in the third degree. We are strongly committed to holding perpetrators of this conduct accountable.”

So why is Amy Cooper a Karen? “Karen” has in fact become a popular online meme, typically used as shorthand for a white, middle-aged North American woman, reeking of privilege (whiteness, class, wealth) and selfishness (I matter more than you) who asserts her own rights over those of (racial, cultural, financial, political) others in confrontations captured on video and posted online. Many of those encounters in recent weeks deal with women asserting the right not to wear a face mask, even in environments in which that is required. Also reported have been women protesting stay-at-home orders, demanding the right to have nails done or to visit a hair salon. But Karens are not new. A recent report from the NPR program “On the Media” listed a host of Karen types, often with names linked to the activity they reported or the context of the encounter: Barbecue Becky, Bus Berator Brenda, Lawnmower Lucy, Pool Patrol Paula, Racist Roslyn, Walmart Mary, Airline Amy. In that report, the host, Brooke Gladstone, explored with Apryl Williams, a professor of communications and media at the University of Michigan, the origins of the Karen meme.

Interestingly, these annoying individuals seem to always be women. In that sense, the phenomenon resembles the complaints about speech patterns like vocal fry (use of a deep, creaky, breathy sound), upspeak (rising intonation applied to all utterances, not just questions), or use of hedges (disclaimers, tag questions), all associated with women. It’s not that these speech habits do not exist, it’s that social censure rarely is directed to particular male speech patterns like self-assertiveness, insensitivity, or excessive volume. Why the difference? In the US there is been lately a growing awareness of the reality of institutional racism in this society, but the same power structure, favoring white males, also tilts in favor of men.

BTW, the incident in Central Park occurred on May 25, the same day that George Floyd died in police custody. In the discussion on “On the Media” on Karens, Professor Williams emphasized that racism is at the core of Karen behavior:

It is the primary motivating factor for placing that call to the police. I’m not sure that if these incidences were happening to white people that they would feel the need to call the police at all. If they were, we would hear about it, as we have recently with COVID, where white people are being kicked out of stores because they refuse to wear a mask. So, if it were the case that white people were calling the police randomly on other white people, I think we would hear about it. The fact that these incidents keep happening to black people, black men in particular, says that we are still grappling with the same type of racism that we were dealing with under Jim Crow era segregation. And that’s central to these memes.

It may be that the US is at a turning point in race relations. Some recognition of male privilege, as well as white privilege would be welcome as well.

Potent symbolism: Knees, Bibles, Statues

George Floyd being killed

Symbols are powerful. They can hold meaning that is intensely felt by members of a group and can be a way to identify who is and who isn’t accepted as a member of the group. That symbolism might come in the form of dress/appearance. As I commented recently, face masks in the US have become such a symbol, signaling for many political affiliation. Recently we have seen symbolic action surrounding race relations in the US. In this case, the act of kneeling has come to be imbued with powerful meaning. This has been triggered by the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, killed by a police officer kneeling on his neck for nearly 9 minutes despite Floyd’s pleading that he couldn’t breathe. The symbolism of white suppression is highlighted by the nonchalant posture of the officer, with his hands in his pockets.

This individual incident adds to a large number of similar deaths of black men at the hands of the police, leading to wide-spread protests against racism and police brutality throughout the US, as well as in other countries.

Protesters kneeling

Often the protesters will collectively “take a knee”, kneeling in solidarity with Floyd and with black and brown citizens generally. This in turn recalls the actions of American footballer Colin Kapernick in 2016 who famously kneeled during the playing of the US national anthem before games started, as a protest against the treatment of African-

Houston Chronicle

Americans by the police. The front page of the sports section of the Houston (Texas) Chronicle newspaper recently reflected that fact: rather than reports on game results, the page borrows from John Lennon’s Imagine, here applied to the death of George Floyd.

In response to the protests, and to the violence that has ensued in some cities, President Trump this week had the square in front of the White House cleared of protesters with tear gas, despite the fact that they were lawfully and peacefully protesting. That happened so that the President could walk across to St. John’s Church so he could have his picture taking holding a Bible. He did not pray nor kneel. Apparently, the action was intended as a signal that the President was upholding Christian values, but how that related to the protests or to police misconduct is not clear. However, as the holy script of Christianity, founded on the life of Jesus Christ, the Bible most evidently represents the values Jesus exemplified: love of one’s neighbor, solidarity with the downtrodden, leading a life of virtue and humility. It’s not evident that President Trump had those values in mind, but was more likely using the Bible to signal his belonging to politically conservative US Americans and perhaps to show his ability to use his power to disperse unwelcome protests.

Lee Statue and protesters

A very different reaction to the protests generated by Floyd’s death occurred here in Richmond, Virginia, where there have been mass protests this past week. The governor announced that the statues of figures from the Southern Confederacy, located along Monument Avenue, would be taken down. The statues were erected as a sign of pride in the Southern “lost cause” of the Confederacy, a state that separated from the Union in order to preserve slavery. This has made the statues symbols of the Jim Crow era of overt racism and therefore a frequent source of concern that they glorify racial injustice. Now they are coming down.

We will see if these symbolic actions will have lasting consequences in terms of race relations in the US, but certainly in the short term there are significant changes happening.

Paper cuts

papercut“No, where are you really from?” – a simple question but 6 words which can hurt. Some insensitive and ethnocentric questions can produce deep, long-lasting wounds, others may be the equivalent of a paper cut – a sharp pain that goes away fairly quickly with no permanent damage. This metaphor was used in by Michele Norris in a story on NPR about the Racecard project: 6 word statements about race that are being collected. The comment on NPR: ” On paper it looks like a straightforward expression of curiosity or perhaps a social icebreaker. But dozens of people have said that their heart breaks a little when they hear that inquiry. ”

Some sample “racecards” collected:

Ask who I am, not what.
Reason I ended a sweet relationship.
She’s nothing but poor white trash.
Grandma sent $100 when we broke up.
No English.Standardized assessment. No chance.
Angry black men are so scary.
Not all Mexicans can do landscaping
Indian? At least he isn’t black!
“You’re 16, Mexican and not pregnant?”
Wait…so you’re not really black?
You see me as I’m NOT!
Hyphenating myself – how to prioritize culture?