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Monuments to Racism Undermine Community Health

By Phil Bors on August 23rd, 2017

Recent events in Charlottesville, VA have sent us reeling. At Active Living By Design (now Healthy Places by Design), we believe that health and wellbeing are essential human rights, and we know that the connections between race, racism, and poor health are well established. As Danielle Sherman expressed in her recent blog, racism and racial inequity are “embedded in social institutions, policies, cultural practices, and interactions in everyday life,” ultimately creating unjust health disparities.

While it’s hard for many of us to imagine how we’ve returned to the days of torch-bearing white supremacists publicly spewing hatred, for people of color who live with the stresses and real dangers of racism, nothing new may have been revealed last week. Racism expresses itself culturally (e.g., through public memorials and ceremonies), institutionally (e.g., with preemptive legislation), and personally (e.g., through micro-aggression, racist slurs, and even violence).

All of these have been on display in North Carolina for decades. I’ve passed a statue of a Confederate soldier—which stands just one mile from my house—on my way to work, the grocery store, my children’s schools, and nearly every other destination for the past 20 years in my own town of Pittsboro, NC. As of this month, the 23-foot Civil War memorial has been in front of the Chatham County courthouse for 110 years. In the most public and central place in the county, the memorial cannot be avoided. The monument’s inscription honors the “sons of Chatham.”

I’ve wondered mostly to myself (until recently), whose sons? And why this memorial—painful to so many county residents—continues to occupy a space that represents the government of the United States rather than a Confederate cemetery or museum. Confederate memorials in public spaces are different from other war memorials; they are powerful symbols of white cultural dominance during the Jim Crow era following Reconstruction. For some, these statues represent nostalgia for a period of time in history; they also embody a lingering and harmful hostility toward people of color, particularly African Americans.

In 2015, North Carolina’s General Assembly passed, and former Governor McCrory signed into law, the Confederate Monument Protection Act. This law preempts local governments from removing Confederate memorials. In other words, even if towns and counties agree to remove these symbols, their hands are tied. This effectively bolsters the effort (by some) to maintain symbols of cultural dominance over people of color.

But residents, community leaders, and some elected officials are pushing back. Current North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper is calling for the removal of these statues across the state. And in my neighboring county, another recent bright spot of anti-racist policy change occurred within days of the Charlottesville chaos, on the same day that Durham, NC activists toppled a Confederate statue: the Orange County school board voted unanimously to ban Confederate flags, Ku Klux Klan symbols, and swastikas on clothing in all district schools.

We stand with those working to dismantle racism in our institutions, policies, and public spaces. We encourage our partners and allies to continue acting in support of people of color, collaborating with other organizations committed to equity, advocating for equitable policy with local elected leaders, and pushing for positive change in North Carolina and nationwide. Removing Confederate memorials will not eliminate structural inequities nor their impact on health, but every day that cultural markers of racism remain standing, we undermine wellbeing for everyone. The time to invest in a future of equitable, healthy communities is now.

Phil Bors

Senior Project Director

Community collaborator, enthusiastic brainstormer, and devotee of down time