• The killing of George Floyd has spurred efforts around the world to raze divisive symbols.
  • Symbols of the Confederacy have come under particular scrutiny in the US.
  • Symbols matter because of the emotional content they convey. They have been routinely eradicated throughout history.

In the span of several days earlier this month, monuments to at least two Confederate generals were yanked from their pedestals in the US. The statue of a 17th-century slave trader was dumped in a British harbour. In Belgium, a statue of a king whose exploitation of an African colony caused millions of deaths was set on fire before its removal.

Amid the anger at the killing of an unarmed African American man at the hands of police in the US and dwindling tolerance for systemic racism, people around the world are feeling empowered to dismantle divisive symbols.

In many cases, formal requests for removal have been achieved by working through official channels. But not always – this past Tuesday, a request to remove the bust of a Ku Klux Klan grand wizard from the Tennessee state capitol building was voted down.

Symbols matter, a University of New Hampshire professor wrote in response to the display of Confederate flags at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally held in Charlottesville, Virginia, because of the emotional content they convey. Symbols deemed especially problematic have routinely been eradicated throughout history – from Soviet monuments in the former Eastern Bloc, to the statue of a British imperialist in South Africa.

In the US, the recent death of George Floyd and demands for racial justice make this a particularly fraught moment for the country – and for its visible historical baggage. Confederate monuments are especially charged not just because they commemorate a bid to establish a slave-holding republic, but also because their construction accompanied the subsequent rise of Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised black Americans.

Image: World Economic Forum

In 2015, Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans in a South Carolina church. Images subsequently emerged of Roof posing with the Confederate flag. Between those murders and early 2019, 114 Confederate symbols were removed, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. But 1,747 remained.

The use of Confederate symbols isn’t confined to the US. Supporters of a professional soccer club in Italy have brandished the Confederate flag, as have descendants of Confederate soldiers in Brazil, and rock 'n' roll fanatics in Sweden.

In many cases these symbols are used due to an ignorance of their true meaning. In other instances, the meaning is very much embraced.

Image: World Economic Forum

Some have argued that dismantling monuments and eliminating symbols amounts to erasing history. But an awareness of their potentially harmful effects has only increased – evidenced by a recent decision by NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag from its racing events and properties, and an effort in London to comprehensively review links between statues in the city and slavery.

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • The now-submerged statue of British slave trader Edward Colston was erected long after his death, as part of an “invention of tradition” in his hometown. (The Conversation)
  • One of the latest symbols in the culture wars: coronavirus masks. According to this analysis for some people they represent an affront to liberty, while for others they mean support for science-informed decision-making. (InsideClimate News)
  • Not all contemporary political and ideological symbols are well known, and researchers at Columbia University have developed an app to help journalists decipher what they’re seeing at demonstrations. (Nieman Lab)
  • One way to respond to Confederate monuments glorifying white supremacy is to puncture that narrative with your own. An artist’s equestrian statue of a young black man in a hoodie does just that, according to this report. (New Yorker)
  • According to this US Air Force colonel’s opinion piece, the continued use of Confederate symbols has often ignored the nature of that heritage – which is grounded in secession, oppression and war. (War on the Rocks)
  • In a number of places in the US, laws have been passed that protect Confederate monuments. But that hasn’t stopped protestors from attempting to remove them anyway, according to this report. (CityMetric)
  • One of the most iconic monuments to the Confederacy, a statue of General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, has been slated for removal – but it’s just one of several lining the same street, according to this report. (Christian Science Monitor)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find visualizations and feeds of expert analysis related to Human Rights, Civic Participation and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

Image: World Economic Forum