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Recently there has been increasing pressure at various historical institutions to remove references to historical patrons, whether through names or statues. The reason is typically related to the individual in question having been either involved in slavery or other activities we now deem morally abhorrent.

There is a very important point about the systemic and historical legacies of inequality in America (and elsewhere). We do need to have an honest and rational discussion about this legacy and its ongoing effects. The only way to meaningfully progress from here is to have honest discussions about where we are and how we got here. Whitewashing the past–in the sense of erasing elements deemed uncomfortable–is exactly the wrong way to go about this.

A no-brainer, right, is this: all persons live in a historical context, and what has been deemed ethical and moral changes through time. Each individual will also do things good and bad by the standards of their time–and later history may or may not agree with the contemporary assessments. There is a different view available in retrospect. This means that any and all historical figures are potentially ambiguous. Moreover, no one has done only good or only bad. This is as true for those celebrated as heroes as much as those remembered as villains. This does not make their legacies any less significant for the shape of the world today. This means that deleting a figure from official memory both erases part of a unchangeable past and threatens censure of any and all people based on the whims of the moment. If American historiography censored all figures who had been slave owners or persecutors of native Americans, there would be very little meaningful early history left. It would be a very myopic historiography, one, ironically, which would serve the rhetorical interests of racists rather well.

More importantly, however, the elimination of uncomfortable figures sweeps the issue under the rug instead of addressing it in a meaningful way–i.e., provoking discussion for substantive change. The disappearance of a statue of a slave owner does little to change the disadvantage of urban minorities. Instead, the acknowledgement of the ambivalent nature of our forebears–their good and bad–is a useful opportunity to discuss how we got to where we are, and where we would like to go instead. Instead of demanding that a statue be removed, we should use its presence to highlight how wealth had been generated and distributed in the way it was, and use that discussion to inform plans to correct its negative legacies. Incidentally, similar uses could be envisioned for Columbus Day. Rather than excoriating the man, it might be a valuable moment to consider the continued plight of Native Americans.

In short, we need more history, not less. Humans have done and continue to do terrible things. We ought to remember them in order to do better, rather than pretend they never happened.

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