Opinion

The real act of vandalism? The NC law that limits the options on Silent Sam.

Those who work and study at UNC-Chapel Hill have expressed a strong consensus: “Silent Sam” should go away for good. But the UNC system Board of Governors demanded a plan consistent with N.C. General Statute 100-2.1, which states that any relocated “object of remembrance” must be installed at a site similar in “prominence, honor, [and] visibility” to its former home.

In response, Chancellor Carol Folt and the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees have proposed building a new center on campus to house the monument. The statue would occupy an honored place in that center, though the statue’s origins would be newly “contextualized” and placed amid artifacts that “teach and commemorate the University’s full history.”

The excruciatingly careful rhetoric of the report shows why the plan is a problem. In the discussion of the “highly pertinent” considerations that guided the proposal, the words “white supremacy” do not appear. Yet historians who study the South, UNC, and the Jim Crow era have established beyond question that the United Daughters of the Confederacy commissioned and installed the statue because of racial animus and their commitment to a “Lost Cause” narrative of the Civil War. That narrative is foundational to beliefs in white superiority; unsurprisingly, the statue has drawn many avowed white supremacists to our campus in recent months.

The soft-pedaling of white supremacy is found all over this report. Nowhere do we see the September public statement by 54 black faculty who noted the “demoralizing burden” of facing the veneration of a monument that “represents white supremacy in both the past and present” while also being “asked to serve as examples of diversity and inclusion.” The unanimous Faculty Council resolution supporting that statement is also missing. That resolution, calling for the permanent removal of the statue and base, lies buried in an online appendix. So much for shared governance between faculty and administrators and the chancellor’s assurance that “we’ve listened to you.”

The bravery of student activists likewise goes unacknowledged. The students have only a phantom presence, conjured in the proposal to beef up campus security with a “mobile force platoon” to enhance “crowd control” at the “complex events that are sure to resume” once the monument is restored to campus. So, the chancellor and the BOT have given some attention to controlling the future speech and movement of UNC’s students, but they refrained from acknowledging the broad anti-racist awakening their activism made possible.

At a Faculty Executive Committee meeting on Dec. 3, the chancellor and her team expressed confidence that the new site for the statue would bring together people with different views. Meetings of minds would be possible because, as one of them remarked, “honest history dishonors no one.” But the administrators fail to understand that there is no neutral way of narrating injustice.

A 21st century history, no matter how thoroughly contextualized, cannot properly “honor” Confederate traitors to the United States who fought to defend a social system rooted in chattel slavery. Seen through the lens of history, the Confederate statue is already beyond redemption. Repositioning the statue in a place of prominence and honor offends historical judgment, violates the university’s values, and shows contempt for all persons of color. The statue creates a hostile environment in which to study and work. It must go.

Instead of hiding behind the law while doing the political bidding of the BOG, the chancellor should have seized this opportunity to protest a law that is itself a tool of white supremacy. The 2015 statute that prevents the relocation of objects of remembrance was discussed in the N.C. House after Dylann Roof’s massacre of black worshippers at a Charleston church; that violent manifestation of white supremacy inspired a wave of monument removals and protests across the south. With NC GS 100-2.1 our legislature sent a clear message: keep your hands off North Carolina’s Confederate monuments. Enshrining that message into North Carolina law was the real act of vandalism that now requires repair.

Jay M. Smith is professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill. Sherryl Kleinman is professor of sociology emerita at UNC.
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