A photo of people taking down the Cecil Rhodes statue in South Africa

Desmond Bowles/#RMF Statue Removal image 32/CC 2.0


Desmond Bowles/#RMF Statue Removal image 32/CC 2.0

What the U.S. Can Learn from South Africa about Racist Statues

The Rhodes Must Fall campaign spread from Cape Town to Oxford, and from statues to systems of white supremacy. Here's what the U.S. can learn from it.

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In March 2015, tensions were high at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. A massive statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes sat in prominence in the middle of campus—and was likewise the center of controversy. Protestors, demanding that “Rhodes Must Fall,” pelted the statue with feces, covered it with garbage bags, and staged walkouts of meetings with university officials.

In April of that same year, the statue came down to the cheers of a watching crowd. Rhodes had fallen, protestors said, but there was still much further to go in the quest to level the playing field of higher education. The subsequent Rhodes Must Fall campaign has continued to spread to universities around the world, where protestors have united in their efforts to topple not just offensive statues, but also the white supremacist systems that raised them in the first place.

Thousands of miles from Cape Town, in the birthplace of English higher education at Oxford University, students at the famous debating society tackled the nascent Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford movement in one of its famed debate nights. The night was accompanied by a sarcastically named drink, The Colonial Comeback, and a poster featuring a drawing of black hands in chains, sparking larger protests against the mostly white, mostly male Oxford Union debating society and the university at large.

Two years later, we in the United States find ourselves having the same debates and discussions about statues, memorials, and the preservation of whiteness. The branches of the Rhodes Must Fall movement in higher education around the world speak to the current anti-Confederate movement, and offer lessons in how to approach these honorifics of whiteness and slavery that dot the American landscape.

Cecil Rhodes was a slaver, colonizer, and very rich businessman. The country of Rhodesia was named after him, and he was the father of the mining industry in southern Africa, which had economic ramifications resulting in generational poverty amongst large swaths of the black South African population. His legacy—due to his wealth—has reverberated throughout the former British colonies. The Oxford Rhodes Scholars program—of which both Rachel Maddow and Bill Clinton are alumni—is named for him.

Rhodes was also a notorious racist, so much so that historians say even his fellow British colonizers were wary of his virulent racism. But his wealth papered over his character flaws, and he built huge businesses, started scholarships, and made and spent enough money that his racism was largely ignored because of his generosity toward white educational institutions. Statues to his legacy are prominently displayed in both Cape Town and Oxford, where a statue of a glowering Rhodes looks down over the High Street from the façade of Oriel College.

Moving beyond the statues

Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford, a movement lead by black and minority ethnic students at the University, is an outgrowth of that first movement in Cape Town. Both movements have multiple prongs based around one common goal: decentralizing whiteness within higher education. This unity of purpose, with concrete steps toward resolution, like increasing diversity of teaching staff, challenging the focus of particular disciplines, and broadening curriculum to reflect more than just a white, male, British perspective, has made these movements sustainable and successful. It also provides a roadmap for the current American anti-Confederate movement.

Rhodes Must Fall emphasizes the importance not only of taking down symbols of white supremacy, but of examining culture and ideas within a racial framework. For example, one of the main grievances at the University of Oxford is the dearth of people of color in professorships and lectureships throughout the university. Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford also points to the whiteness of the student body as problematic for the university as a whole, because a homogenous group will tend to lack important perspectives.

And, perhaps most importantly, Rhodes Must Fall also challenges the very idea of the western canon, particularly in how history is taught. While history students at Oxford take several courses on British and European history, it was only this last year that a requirement to take African history was added. This shift in degree requirements was a direct result of the push from Rhodes Must Fall to change a curriculum that was previously heavily tilted toward just European history. Non-white, non-European voices were optional; now, they are not. Though the University is steadfastly resisting the removal of the Rhodes statue, they are approving other important requests.

Getting history right

Rhodes Must Fall provides the concrete example of dreaming larger than a statue, of recognizing that it is not just the statue that is bad, but the system of white supremacy that erected the statues in the first place. Reflecting on history accurately means recognizing that these statues were not memorials erected during Reconstruction, but poorly made mass copies built to intimidate black people under Jim Crow. Tearing down the shoddy statues is symbolic of pulling down the façade of genial and benign whiteness that tells us the end of the Civil War meant the end of white people longing for slavery.

We are not going to move forward as a nation if millions are still being told that the Civil War was about states’ rights.

The same arguments that are dominating the U.S. news media today — about preserving history, about ripping apart the important historical fabric of the nation, of ignoring tragedy — have all been leveled at Rhodes Must Fall. And Rhodes Must Fall’s answers are a template, both for taking down Confederate statues and for moving the conversation beyond the statues themselves.

In fact, the main thrust of Rhodes Must Fall is that it is not entirely about the statues. Resisting and destroying the statues is symbolic of the larger need to place imperialists, colonizers, and slave-owners back into proper context. It does not memorialize the victims of Cecil Rhodes’ racism to continue to hold an image of him in a position of honor above a main street. And it does not honor the victims of chattel slavery in the US to have statues of Confederate generals in prominent public positions.

Instead, these statues turn truly horrific portions of our history into simply another part of the landscape for white people, and a harsh reminder of enslavement for black Americans. Treating them as benign imagery amounts to tacit if not outright endorsement of Confederate actions.

Leaving white supremacy in the past

As Rhodes Must Fall teaches, the continued existence of monuments to white supremacy signals a culture that is okay with white supremacy. It’s never just the statue—the statue is the flashpoint, the catalyst for re-examining how much our education, our history, and our culture still prioritize whiteness as a benign good, rather than articulating the necessary and vital contributions of people of color.

Rhodes Must Fall was already reaching across the Atlantic to various schools across the United States before recent events in Charlottesville re-ignited the campaign to rid the U.S. of Confederate statues. Yale renamed Calhoun college, and Mizzou and University of Texas at Austin were already fighting their own battles about Confederate monuments. Now the discussion has expanded outside the hallowed halls of the Ivies into the streets of Charlottesville, Durham, Memphis, Los Angeles, and Boston. There is great energy in removing these symbols of white supremacy, just as there was great symbolism in Bree Newsome’s brave climb to tear down the Confederate flag in South Carolina.

But again, this is not entirely about symbolism. Ridding ourselves of these monuments to white supremacist traitors to the union is but the first step. We must also recognize that our country was built on the backs of Africans, forcibly migrated from their homes. We must recognize that our “great American literature” and the Western canon reflect a world where whiteness is still held supreme. We must recognize that the legacy of slavery and lynching are still felt today, in generational poverty, in police brutality, in the equivocation coming from the highest office in the land. As Rhodes Must Fall in both Cape Town and Oxford have taught us, the movement does not stop with the statues. It does not simply do to make sure Rhodes and Lee fall. We must take every step we can to ensure that none like them ever rise again.


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