How to respond to symbols of systemic racism

A supporter of President Donald Trump carries a Confederate battle flag on the second floor of the U.S. Capitol near the entrance to the Senate after breaching security defenses, in Washington, U.S., January 6, 2021. A portrait of abolitionist senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who was savagely beaten on the Senate floor after delivering a speech criticizing slavery in 1856, hangs above the couch.        REUTERS/Mike Theiler     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC2K2L9T6BWB

A supporter of President Donald Trump carries a Confederate battle flag in the US Capitol after breaching security defenses, January 6, 2021. Image: REUTERS/Mike Theiler TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC2K2L9T6BWB

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • A healthy discussion about hateful symbols emerged after George Floyd’s death, but many remain prominent.
  • Confederate flags, among the most divisive symbols, were recently wielded by rioters at the US Capitol building.
  • Arguments over whether and how to remove such symbols have persisted in a number of countries.

Mississippi recently ratified a new state flag, opting for a magnolia flower to replace its traditional Confederate emblem.

Yet, just a few days prior to that gratifying (albeit belated) event, Confederate flags – unambiguously racist symbols of white supremacy – had been prominently brandished during a riot at the US Capitol building that left five people dead and many more traumatized.

The distressing display was a reminder that tensions over divisive symbols have persisted, following a wave of reflection on systemic racism and statue razing after the killing of George Floyd in May.

In fact, a member of Floyd’s family has been directly affected. Selwyn Jones, who successfully sought to have the Confederate flag removed from the police logo in his South Dakota hometown not long after his nephew’s death, became a target of hate and harassment as a result.

The strife in South Dakota was not unique: federal legislation to fund the US military was vetoed last month in part because it proposed renaming bases that have honoured Confederate leaders; a Confederate monument in Lexington, North Carolina was removed in October after months of competing protests; and a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee was banished from the US Capitol building just days before the riot there. Stone Mountain Park in Georgia, which features a relief sculpture of Confederate leaders bigger than a football field, drew right-wing protesters and Black Lives Matter supporters to a violent clash in August.

According to one tally, nearly 60 Confederate symbols were removed or relocated from public spaces in the first few months after Floyd’s killing – but thousands more remain.

Disputes over these symbols point to a discord that threatens to undermine a post-pandemic Great Reset aimed at bolstering social justice. Poll results in July showed a slight majority of US voters supporting the removal of Confederate statues, compared with 2018 results that reflected satisfaction with allowing them to stay. Yet, opinions on the matter vary significantly according to race and political affiliation.

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The holiday observed as Columbus Day throughout much of the US in October proceeded as expected: with protests focused on statues of the European explorer, who is credited with “discovering” the Americas and bringing violence, slavery, and disease to indigenous people in the process. Other monuments around the world have similarly become targets, including those of the colonial administrator Lachlan Macquarie and the explorer Captain Cook in Australia.

Yet, in the US, it is the monuments and symbols commemorating the Confederacy – a failed effort to keep millions of people enslaved based on the colour of their skin – that have sparked some of the strongest reactions. A Black veteran recently recounted what it was like to serve in a military that’s frequently named its bases and installations after Confederate soldiers. Removing such hurtful labels is “just the right thing to do,” she said.

That’s a sentiment shared in many other contexts and countries. In the Netherlands, calls continue to be made to remove the statute of a Dutch East India Company officer who oversaw the massacre of indigenous people in Indonesia. In Senegal, a square in the former capital once named after a French colonial governor has been renamed. And in Vienna, a statue of an anti-Semitic former mayor has been repeatedly defaced.

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

  • The Capitol insurgency was about making America great for white people, according to this analysis. By waving a Confederate flag and wearing white nationalist paraphernalia, the domestic terrorists showed they fundamentally believe in maintaining and enacting white supremacy. (Brookings)
  • Social media restrictions cannot keep up with hidden codes and symbols. One prominent case referenced in this analysis: Pepe the Frog, which exemplifies the capacity of memes to both foment hate and defy oppression. (Scientific American)
  • Decoding the body art on the “QAnon shaman” – one prominent participant in storming the US Capitol was a bare-chested man with tattoos including the “Sonnenrad,” listed by the Anti-Defamation League as an ancient symbol appropriated by the Nazis, according to this report. (The Conversation)
  • The toppling of a statue of Spanish coloniser and slaveholder Sebastián de Belalcázar by indigenous protesters in Colombia represents a watershed moment for a country that didn’t recognise indigenous and other minority groups’ equal rights until the 1990s, according to this analysis. (LSE)
  • “Fallism” is an African movement – from the moment of independence, it was understood that colonial statues did not just represent colonizers, they operated as enduring and active forms of imperialism, according to this report. (New African)
  • The tallest sculpture in North America – 45 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty – is a likeness of Christopher Columbus looming over the shores of Puerto Rico. According to this report, locals there are calling it a “tribute to genocide” that should be removed. (Mother Jones)
  • Britain’s landscape remains full of monuments to slave owners and those closely associated with the slave trade, according to this analysis – and while symbolic acts like toppling them are good for kick-starting public conversations, more is needed to instigate real social change. (LSE)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Systemic Racism, Arts and Culture and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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