Recently, a lot of attention has been focused on the issue of statues in relation to the BLM movement and the initiative to end systemic racism in the UK. Individuals have taken action with protests alongside spraying graffiti on statues, all culminating in the tearing down of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol.
The debate is centered around whether statues of racist or slavery-involved historical figures should be torn down in light of this new social movement or left to remain as they are arguably a key part of British history.
Personally, I was surprised to see such wide coverage of the statues debate as it seems to be a low priority issue when compared to the other features of institutional racism.
This article will be split into two parts: firstly, addressing the problems with simply tearing down statues and secondly, potential solutions that may be more productive.
The immediate problem with the focus on statues is that solving this problem does very little to tackle the colossal issue of institutional racism: every statue could be removed but the socio-economic status of the black community would stay the same.
In addition to this, there is a compelling argument that these statues serve as a reminder and ‘evidence’ for the atrocities committed. If taken down it may be akin to ‘deleting the evidence’ and within a few generations people may forget that key events such as the slave trade were so widespread and significant. This would serve to detract from the ongoing reparations debate that seeks to give descendants of slaves some compensation for the events and trauma of the slave trade, similar to the reparations paid out by West Germany in the wake of the Holocaust.
On practical grounds, there is also the problem that almost all (pre)Victorian public figures shared in the views and perused business activities similar to those of Colston. This means that if statues of pro-slavery and racist figures are taken down, there may be very few statues left. Taking down such a large number of statues in the UK may seem perfectly sensible to some, but for many the historic and cultural value lost would be too great. This suggests that any feasible solution will have to be slightly more receptive to the complex nature of the problem.
Now that some of the problems have been highlighted, we can move on to what I view to be a viable solution.
First and foremost, as a community, we should prioritise the more pressing issues to do with systemic racism first. This includes the education system, workplace discrimination and policing but to name a few. If the same amount of airtime and resources were put into addressing these issues, we would undoubtedly see more justice done in relation to the BLM initiative.
With regards to the statues, I believe that the relevant institution associated with a statue should have the final decision about its removal. For example, the removal of statues in The University of Oxford should be discussed between the university body and the government.
For the statues that do get taken down, I think that they should be stored in museums with large plinths explaining what each figure has done. This should serve as a reminder to ensure that we have a more complete view of this country’s history. Most importantly, this enables people to educate themselves.
The aim is not to pretend that these people never existed, but to state that as a society we do not agree with their views and what they represented.
Perhaps slightly more controversial, I believe that some statues should be allowed to stay. Partly as a reminder for society, but also with the philosophical idea that we should detach the achievements and works of an individual from who they were as a character.
In the case of statues, we must ask whether we are celebrating the person or the achievement. I would suggest a blend of the two but more in favour of the person. If this is the case, then certain monuments and statues may need to be edited accordingly to ensure that we are celebrating the achievements; plaques ought to be changed to include the reality of the negative things that the person in question has done. This may not be applicable for those that were active slave traders, but figures such as Churchill who held unashamedly racist viewpoints could be allowed to stay due to their achievements, but with plaques giving a more rounded picture of their character.
All things considered, simply tearing down every statue of those involved in slavery (or those whose values we no longer agree with) may not be the most productive solution. Instead, we need to ensure that statues that are taken down get stored in museums and others be altered to reflect the truth of the person celebrated. Nevertheless, as I have said throughout this piece; the level of attention paid to this issue is certainly a step in the right direction. But whether these statues remain or not, we should not let it distract us from the initiatives for meaningful change.
© Durodoluwa Adebayo 2020