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On Monument Avenue, Liberal Illusions About Race Come Tumbling Down

But the statues stayed up so long because they were tolerated by people who by most definitions would qualify as progressives. This includes, in recent decades, African-Americans serving in the top jobs of the city and state. They believed the racist past evoked by the statues no longer mattered much because it had been defeated by racial progress, by modernity, by the Winning Cause.

Now, it looks like this, too, was a kind of fiction.

I lived in Richmond as a reporter in the early 1990s and know the statues well. I was a northerner now living in a southern city I enjoyed immensely, and used to stroll often past the towering figures along the grassy median of Monument Avenue. There was Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart, Jefferson Davis, as well as the more obscure Matthew Fontaine Maury, “the pathfinder of the seas.”

Why did I tolerate, and even, at times, take friends to see the statues? It wasn’t that the legacy of the Confederacy didn’t offend me. It was that the statues depicted a history that seemed functionally dead. They also seemed like a joke—and the joke was on the very racists who had erected them in the first place.

My time in Richmond overlapped precisely with the tenure of L. Douglas Wilder as the nation’s first black elected governor. He was one of the most beguiling politicians of his era, electric in personality, fiercely independent and forever jousting with his fellow Democrats. Wilder’s achievement, powered by an ideologically moderate cross-racial coalition, didn’t occur in New York or California. It happened in the Old Dominion. What better evidence that the Confederacy was spiritually dead, 125 years after its actual death? Current history had routed earlier history. The statues seemed little more than a tourist attraction.

What has become steadily more clear over the years—and crystallized dramatically in the national reckoning over the murder of George Floyd—is that the history the statues depict is not dead. The throngs of protesters on Monument Avenue in recent days gathered precisely because they know the symbolism of the statues is very much alive–toxic and radiant. For now the statues are covered in graffiti. Soon, after what seems likely to be short-lived legal and logistical hurdles, they will be gone.

Joe Biden in recent days has said that for most of his 77 years he believed the country was steadily transcending prejudice, and that Barack Obama’s election as president seemed to validate this view. This month’s events, he said, have jarringly asserted the durability of hatred, how under the wrong conditions “it comes out from under the rocks.”

This is a more consequential statement than it may seem at first blush. The Biden assumption is essentially the same one that animated traditional, temperate liberalism for the past half-century or more. It held that the earnest efforts of enlightened white people and the achievements of exemplary black people were gradually cleansing America of its original sin of slavery and systemic racism.

The new assumption is that the achievements of an outstanding few have only glancingly improved the daily hardships of the many—seen in the disproportionate numbers of minorities in economic distress, in prison or facing death from Covid-19 or police brutality. When it comes to racial history, the nation can’t steadily push it to the margins. It must attack it frontally, and examine its pathology as one would a tumor. The aim of progressivism is not to make race gradually less consequential but to insist that it be more central. This is the opposite of what progressives of Biden’s generation, and the generation after that, grew up believing.

One person who is not much impressed by the epiphanies many people are having over the Monument Avenue statues is Wilder himself. He’s 89 now, and after leaving the governorship served as Richmond mayor. Since he was a child, Wilder told me in an interview on Monday, “I knew what the statues meant,” though the invoking of a Civil War past was less meaningful than the present of “colored only” sections of 20th century streetcars.

For most of his career, Wilder said, his view was, “Who in the hell is ever going to care about those monuments?” Even now, what Wilder sees as the easy symbolism and virtue-signaling of taking them down elicits a shoulder shrug, compared to the substantive burdens of financial and educational impoverishment that plague the descendants of slavery. Against those problems, he said, “Tearing down statutes is not the heart of the issue.” On substance, he said, “There’s an absence of leadership at all levels.”

As it happens, Wilder’s biographer, Donald P. Baker, has lived for more than three decades on Monument Avenue. “The longer we lived here, the more they offended me,” said Baker, now 87. Understood in context, the statues were less about the Civil War than they were monuments to Jim Crow, erected by the same politicians who were codifying segregation at the turn of the 20th century. The streams of people, white and black, making gleeful pilgrimages past his home to celebrate the imminent demise of the statues suggest, Baker said, “You can’t overestimate the importance of these events.”

Tim Kaine, a former Democratic mayor of Richmond who then became governor and is now in the U.S. Senate, said he never believed the statues were a joke, but he tolerated them as an invitation to humility–an emblem of “pain” that reminds people that leaders who were esteemed in their own time were “horribly wrong” as judged by history. His answer, like Wilder’s, was not to take statues down but to add new ones—such as the statue of tennis legend and Richmond native Arthur Ashe Jr., which was erected on Monument Avenue in 1996.

He now recognizes that response as inadequate. “It’s like scale falling from my eyes,” Kaine said of this spring’s protests. The problem with the statues isn’t what they say about the past, “It’s what they say about people and our values in the present,” and the vision they suggest about “a troubling future…..Are we ever going to be equal?”

Doug Wilder in the days after his 1989 election as governor shared the cover of Time magazine with another big story: The fall of the Berlin Wall. Tyranny and racism alike were crumbling in what seemed like a triumph of hopeful liberalism. Tyranny, like racism, is proving a good bit more durable. And progress, it’s now clear, doesn’t travel on a pleasantly steady path, but one that veers in violent and unpredictable ways.

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