Nearly two months ago, protesters first took to the streets to demand justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and so many other Black Americans killed by police officers. A core set of bold demands quickly gained traction: Abolish the police. Redistribute resources to Black people and communities. End systemic, institutionalized racism.
But in the weeks since, symbols — not systems — have been first to fall. Across the country, statues, site names, mascots, and other public symbols intertwined with racist histories have been cast aside, sometimes by protesters themselves, but just as often by city councils, state legislatures, and corporate boards eager to profess solidarity with anti-racist movements.
Activists, scholars, and artists at the forefront of the anti-racist movement said that symbols can be an easy out for powerful institutions still resistant to undoing systemic inequalities. But taken as a whole, they said, the growing collection of fallen symbols is a sign of true progress, an early victory in what will be a long fight for fundamental change.
“If we are going to dismantle structural racism, if we are going to address the atrocities of slavery and genocide, if we are going to engage in a process of decolonization, the statues have to come down,” said artist and activist Bree Newsome Bass, who in 2015 scaled a flagpole on the South Carolina State House grounds and took down the Confederate flag. “I think that sometimes symbolic change is the first step, but it shouldn’t be the last step.”
A remarkable array of powerful institutions once resistant to calls for change have taken these first steps in recent weeks. The Washington NFL team is changing its long-criticized mascot. Mississippi is redesigning its Confederate emblem-emblazoned state flag; Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, is removing statues of Confederate generals. Quaker Oats retired the Aunt Jemima brand. And in cities across the country — and even the world — statues and site names enshrining slavers and colonial settlers have been taken down, and public art declaring that Black lives matter has gone up.
The national phenomenon has not passed over Massachusetts. Boston’s art commission voted to take down the Emancipation Memorial, which depicts Abraham Lincoln towering over a kneeling formerly enslaved man, and the city is weighing whether to permanently remove a statue of Christopher Columbus. The state Senate is considering replacing the Massachusetts seal and flag, which shows the disembodied arm of colonist Myles Standish wielding a sword over Wampanoag leader Massasoit, and prohibiting use of Native American images as mascots in public high schools. Community artists collaborated with the city of Boston to paint a Black Lives Matter street mural in Nubian Square. An activist group has renewed its calls for renaming Faneuil Hall.
Monica Cannon-Grant, the founder of Violence in Boston and the organizer behind some of the city’s largest anti-racism protests, said she is concerned that momentum will stop there. “My frustration is when white people use [symbolic change] against us. They say, ‘We let you write Black Lives Matter in the street,’ and we’re like, ‘Yeah, we asked for systemic change.’ ”
Still, Cannon-Grant and others voice support for the artists writing ‘Black Lives Matter’ in the street and activists advocating for the removal of problematic statues. In a rapidly-changing public landscape, they said, symbols shape how we see the world and reflect who holds power in it.
“I think that symbolic change is real change of sorts because of the importance of the stories we tell ourselves about personhood, nationhood, and citizenship,” said Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and a professor of law and history at Harvard.
Some symbols are so noxious they perpetrate a type of violence: Confederate flags hearkening back to treason and chattel slavery still flying over state houses, for example.
“While these kinds of questions might seem at once kind of cosmetic, they’re also telling us something about history and who’s valued where,” said poet Kevin Young, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
That deeper cultural significance is what gives symbolic change its power. And, so does action backing it up.
“It’s not just saying Black lives matter but showing how they do. Supporting artists, supporting change, putting their money where their mouth is — I think that’s the thing that reveals commitment,” Young added. “And I think commitment is more important than sincerity.”
The difference between cosmetic and authentic change may “depend on where it’s coming from,” said Christy Coleman, a public historian and executive director of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.
A healthy skepticism may be in order, Coleman warned, when powerful institutions voluntarily dispense with a logo or historic site name, sometimes as a diversion. “Traditional power sources will rarely give that up, or they’ll give just enough to say we’re making progress without really doing the heavy-duty work,” she said. “In real movements, in real change, it is a ground-up swell.”
Many of the cities that have made symbolic gestures in support of Black activists and communities in recent weeks have also declined to cut police budgets as drastically as activists had hoped — Boston included. At the national level, little progress has been made so far on sweeping policy reforms that would bring criminal justice, economic, health, and educational systems in line with protesters’ demands.
Brown-Nagin said this is a sign that communities and institutions must be attentive to what comes next: “What changes in everyday practices and policies will follow?”
It is a question Raul Fernandez, a Brookline select board member and associate dean for equity, diversity, and inclusion at Boston University’s Wheelock College, said he posed to his fellow elected officials when they decided to raise a Black Lives Matter banner. “You have to understand that that is a commitment. It’s also an invitation to the community to hold you accountable,” he said.
In Boston, said City Councilwoman Julia Mejia, next steps should include reviewing who is given power in the city through appointments to boards and commissions, and making historic sites such as Faneuil Hall engines of economic empowerment for people of color.
“We’re at a point where we need to do what is hard,” Mejia said. “That is what these times require: to go beyond symbols and statues to repair the harm.”
Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley agreed: “If we are going to paint Black Lives Matter murals on the street, that declaration must also be reflected in our city budgets.”
Pressley said immediate steps must include economic relief as well as educational and social services for those hit by COVID-19 within the context of structural racism; in the longer term, she is proposing sweeping criminal justice reform legislation endorsed by the Movement for Black Lives.
Seeing such changes through, activists and scholars agreed, will require constituents to hold their leaders’ feet to the fire.
Newsome Bass noted that it took five years for the effort to remove Confederate and colonialist symbols to gain real traction. She also warned activists to be vigilant against institutions that co-opt the language of the movement without making real change.
“You just have to keep pushing,” she said. “These mayors are patting themselves on the back for Black Lives Matter murals, but their police officers are still brutalizing people.”
For Dart Adams, 44, who was born and raised in Roxbury, questions of statuary and progress quite literally hit close to home. Adams now lives just minutes away from Park Square, where the Emancipation Memorial stands awaiting removal on an avenue named for Christopher Columbus.
He sees a parallel for the current moment in the story of another generation of Black Bostonians, the enslaved and free people who fought for — and won — emancipation eight decades before Lincoln’s national proclamation.
“For 10 straight years, they fought through the legal system and petitioned and protested until they got more and more wins,” he said. Until they achieved what was once unthinkable, and in 1783 slavery in Massachusetts was abolished.