Confederate monuments were erected in the United States following the loss of Southern Confederate States to the Northern Union States during the American Civil War in 1865. They were intended to commemorate the efforts of soldiers and supporters of the Confederacy in defending white Southerners’ right to economically benefit from Black slavery.
It is important to move beyond being passive consumers of monuments and statues and see past their aesthetic value to consider the deeper symbolic meanings attached to them. Discussions taking place around the world following the Black Lives Matter protests have urged us to consider Confederate statues as sites that intertwine a complex array of academic, social, political and legal discourses.
Unsurprisingly, such memorials have long been the subject of social tensions, debates and protests in the United States with conflicts intensifying during periods of racial friction such as the 2015 Charleston Church Massacre and the election of President Donald Trump in 2016. Divisions exist between those who argue in favour of “preserving history” and protecting the American cultural landscape by maintaining the statues and those who advocate for “removing racist monuments from public space”. This dispute is fundamentally a conflict between certain Southern white and African American communities and is based on their conflicting interpretations of history and the differing meanings they attach to the monuments.
The following article explains how Confederate monuments have become sites of conflict for some Southern white and African Americans by analysing the different ideologies they represent. First, it explores how such monuments create a Southern white nationalistic identity that feels threatened by demands to remove the statues. Next, it looks at how these monuments embody discursive power that attempts to marginalise African Americans, creating a need for the removal of such iconography from public spaces. It concludes by arguing that these disputes originate from the rights awarded to African Americans by Amendments to the United States Constitution following the loss of the Confederate States in the Civil War. Adapting Wesley Hohfeld’s theory of rights and applying it to the case of Confederate monuments can highlight how these new rights required Southern whites to perform certain duties towards their Black counterparts. This placed white Southerners in a new relationship with African Americans with which they continue to disagree, creating long-lasting conflicts such as those manifested by the Confederate monuments.
How statues create a Southern identity
The Confederate monuments play a significant role in crafting a Southern white identity which feels considerably threatened by demands for statue removal, creating social tensions and conflicts. Professor Daniel Demetriou argues that, as a social species, humans require group cohesion through a shared identity, for which memorialisation is key. Similarly, in his theory of “lieux de memoire”, philosopher Pierre Nora explains how history is purposefully constructed to unify a nation’s collective memory and create a group identity. This is then reflected tangibly in material objects such as monuments which embody shared ideologies.
Confederate statues were erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy during a period of economic depression as part of the “Lost Cause” movement. This was an ideological attempt to establish a utopic image of Confederate leaders and depict them as honourable and courageous defenders of Southern states and their rights.
Research on Confederate statues argues that such monuments were critical for bringing white people together through the notion of a shared heritage, supporting the aforementioned theories on the role of monuments in creating a collective identity and “civil religion”. In this way, the Confederate monuments have immortalised a shared Southern history and symbolise collective Southern ideals and group identity.
As a result, some Southern whites may naturally perceive statue removal demands as a means of suppressing their history and taking away their heritage, values and identities. The removal of statues is feared to represent the growing power and authority of Southern Blacks at the expense of white individuals, ultimately resulting in the latter’s erasure. Removing these symbols of Southern white identity is perceived as a threat by Southerners to their community and identity, creating social disputes as a result. In this way, ensuring the continued presence of Confederate statues can become a struggle to protect a shared history and, more broadly, guaranteeing the survival of the culture itself.
How statues exercise power over African Americans
On the other hand, the power imbued by these monuments in order to marginalise and exclude African Americans is also a significant source of conflict and is invoked as a key argument in demands for statue removal. Nora argues that the “commemorative element” of statues is “only one amid many symbolic meanings”. Indeed, this seems valid in the case of Confederate monuments as, rather than simply memorialising the Civil War, such statues were part of a concerted effort to construct a particular version of events. Various theorists have highlighted how control over “ideas, information” and the “means of representation” can be considered a form of discursive power to control and regulate groups of individuals. This is apparent in the case of the Confederate statues as 93 percent of Confederate memorials were erected decades after the War during the era of the Jim Crow laws that established racial segregation in Southern Confederate States and the Civil Rights movement.
During these periods, there were fears of “growing empowerment and enfranchisement” of African Americans at the expense of Southern white individuals’ hegemonic social dominance. This was perceived as a threat to the latter’s social, economic and cultural positions which had been established and maintained over decades. The Confederate monuments were therefore used to glorify the Confederacy’s actions, presenting them as defenders of liberty and state rights, while crucially omitting the violence and suffering experienced by Black individuals. The discourses and images embodied in these monuments served to promote white supremacy and mark racial boundaries in order to Otherise people of colour. Confederate monuments can thus be viewed as a means of exercising power over Black people and maintaining racial hierarchies. Moreover, the power of such monuments is consolidated by their placement in strategic places such as official buildings, public parks, town squares and city centres. This legitimises their embodied messages and makes them ubiquitous as daily reminders of the subordinate position of African Americans in society.
Such symbolic discourses can have severe harmful impacts on individuals who are subjected to such power. To explain further, research has suggested that sustained exposure to Confederate monuments reinforces the inferiority of African Americans. This stigma causes chronic stress, placing larger “allostatic loads”, or “wear and tear”, on their bodies. This has health implications for Black individuals such as a greater proclivity for serious diseases and a shorter life expectancy as well as, social consequences like mass incarcerations and high levels of unemployment.
Consequently, these monuments have become semiotic sites of conflict for African Americans who denounce their lack of representation in monuments as a reflection of their marginalisation in the broader society. Significant disputes therefore arise from African Americans and their allies who suggest that removing Confederate statues is a step towards subverting the discrimination and marginalisation of Black people which has impacted them physically, psychologically, economically and socially.
How statues represent a struggle over rights
The conflict over Confederate monuments originates fundamentally from concerns about the rights awarded to Black individuals following the American Civil War. Social contract theory is predicated on the notion that a functioning society requires individuals to voluntarily relinquish certain rights should these infringe on the rights of others. Importantly, this is a key component of the American political system with the Constitution of the United States serving as a form of social contract. The Confederate States’ loss and Union States’ victory in the American Civil War was followed by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the US Constitution which, respectively, abolished slavery, granted Black people citizenship rights and equal protection under the law, and prohibited discrimination in voting.
Wesley Hohfeld’s theoretical analysis of rights explains how rights and duties are correlatives so an individual’s right to something gives them a claim which another individual has a duty to honour. For example, the rights awarded under the Thirteenth Amendment gave Black individuals a claim against being enslaved which, in turn, gave other people such as white Southerners a duty not to enslave them. As such, awarding these rights to African Americans places a duty on the parts of Southern white people to uphold them and act according.
Significantly, these rights, and their correlating duties, are seen to constrain the actions of Southern white individuals to act as they please. For example, it restricts their ability to have Black people as slaves, which, in turn, threatens their hegemonic positions in society. By abolishing slavery and awarding Black people rights such as citizenship and voting, the Amendments placed them in a relationship with Southern white individuals with which the latter fundamentally disagrees.
This is crucial for understanding how Confederate statues have become sites of conflict as a reflection of Southern white communities’ failure to come to terms with their loss in the American Civil War and attempts to reinforce their previous political, social and cultural hegemony. Confederate monuments are therefore a continuation of the ideological debates surrounding Black people’s rights, embodying the struggle between African Americans who demand duties that Southern whites are reluctant to provide.
It is evident how and why Confederate monuments have become sites of conflict. Theories of group memorialisation and national identity creation explore how the statues serve as an embodiment of Southern collective identity. This demonstrated how statue removal demands can be perceived as an attack on white Southerners’ heritage and values.
Conversely, by analysing theories on discursive power, these statues can also be viewed as a means of exercising control over African Americans in order to maintain unequal social hierarchies and perpetuate injustices. The harmful social, cultural, economic, legal and health impacts of such negative representation are commonly invoked as by African American communities to demand the removal such iconography from public space.
Engaging with Wesley Hohfeld’s analysis of rights suggests that the origins of the dispute surrounding Confederate monuments stems fundamentally from a conflict between African and Southern white Americans’ rights. Unresolved issues exist surrounding the Confederacy’s loss in the American Civil War which had granted Black people certain rights. This consequently placed Southern white individuals in a position to perform a duty to African Americans. However, this duty has been received unfavourably by some white Southern Americans who resist performing it. Instead, they desire to recapture and maintain their historically dominant positions in society by promulgating ideas and beliefs about their supremacy through Confederate monuments.