Panelists Call for Removal of Controversial Symbols at Second ‘Speaking of Justice’ Event

Speakers at Thursday’s virtual event “Down with Monuments and Symbols?” stressed that while certain monuments and symbols must be removed from public places, statue and symbol removal is not enough to combat systemic racism.

At the second virtual event of the “Speaking of Justice” series hosted by Hunter College and the Roosevelt House, panelists urged the removal of controversial monuments and symbols from public spaces because they represent a false narrative of American history that promotes white supremacy, disregarding Black Americans.

“Those monuments have stood in public spaces and evoked trauma on African Americans that have to interact with that space. That is not how we treat American citizens,” said Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, an organization that works to preserve African American history and culture sites.

“Those monuments are a way of using art as a form of psychological warfare against African Americans across our nation. That’s why a broad multiracial coalition is advocating for their removal,” the panelist said.

Journalist and professor Karen Hunter (left), Mississippi Rep. Zakiya Summers (middle) and executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund Brent Leggs (right)

For the past few weeks, people across the nation have been protesting against police brutality and other forms of systemic racism following the death of George Floyd. As part of the larger fight against racism, some protesters and political leaders have removed or taken action to remove monuments, Confederate flags and other controversial symbols from public places.

Another panelist at the event, Mississippi state representative Zakiya Summers, agreed that controversial symbols must come down because of the racism they encourage.

“What we were able to do in Mississippi is absolutely incredible,” Summers said, referencing the recent decision by Mississippi lawmakers to take down the state’s flag, which features Confederate symbolism, following increased pressure from protests across Mississippi after Floyd’s death.

Hunter College professor and journalist Karen Hunter, who moderated this discussion, called for the removal of the South Carolina flag from the State House, after a racially motivated shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church that resulted in the death of nine African Americans.

The call for the removal of these contentious monuments and symbols is not something new. Yet even as these figures have been coming down for years, some wonder if any tangible social change will come from it. Bearing that in mind, panelists also stressed that this action is not the way to ending systemic racism. They said that fostering open and empathetic dialogue that debunks white supremacy, recognizes the contributions of Black people to American history, and corrects the ways in which Black Americans have been wronged will lead to sustained change. 

“We understand that there is fear in the loss of heritage in the form of monuments or flags,” Leggs said in reference to those who say these figures and symbols are their heritage and that displaying them publicly is their right. “But if we lead with a sense of empathy and we can shift the perspective to what is real American history, I feel that we’ll get to a space that will be more just.”

Hunter added that the education system is where “the real work needs to happen” because that is where people get the ideas that “Columbus discovered America and that he was great” and other false narratives.

Along with being held on Zoom, this event was livestreamed on the Roosevelt House’s Facebook page. People can also view this event and last week’s event, “Protest as a Path to Progress: Making Black Lives Matter,” on the Roosevelt House’s YouTube channel.

The next event of the “Speaking of Justice” series is “Healthcare for All? Confronting the Racial Divide” and will be moderated by Hunter College community health professor Phil Alcabes. The panelists are NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene commissioner Oxiris Barbot, former NYC Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, Lilliam Barrios-Paoli and Hunter College social work professor Michael Lewis. People can register to attend here. It will also be livestreamed on the Roosevelt’s House’s Facebook page.

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