The Jefferson Memorial, Racism and Application of Today's Understanding to the Past

I am pretty radical in my antagonism toward racists and our racist past. I share some of Frederick Douglass's famous sadness over the Fourth of July holiday. I consider it legitimate to consider America to be the tragic consequence of brutality and genocide. America is a country based on the arrogant, imperial view of the British who never found a native society they didn't want to destroy. I am in favor of reparations, not a symbolic gesture but real, race aware changes in policy that attempt redress.

I am not in favor of tearing down the Jefferson Memorial. I agree that his participation in slavery is shameful. I also know that he is one of the people that created some of the most beautiful parts of America.

At some point we anti-racists need to figure out how to balance between our desire to honor the repudiation of racism against the fact that everything in the past is tainted with it.

For me that balance begins with evaluating the intent of the person being honored. Jefferson Davis was a warrior fighting to save slavery. Thomas Jefferson was a slave holder who invented much of the modern idea of freedom.

The Jefferson Memorial doesn't seem to me to glorify slavery. I'm not sure it really is about Jefferson. It has always seemed to me to treat him as the symbol of enlightened political ideals of freedom and equality.

More importantly though is that the balancing needs to account for, at the end of the day, pride on the achievements of civilization, too. I would be surprised if you could find a single white person of any accomplishment before 1800 who did not hold opinions about women and 'other' people that were reprehensible by modern standards. Who weren't perfectly fine with penal systems that were often worse than concentration camps.

So, Isaac Newton was one of the greatest minds in history. He was also an investor in the slave trade. Do we ban regard for his immense contributions to science and culture because of that? If so, how do we frame our history?

To whom to we attribute the basic realizations about gravity if he is no longer to be admired. Are we really going to insist that, as some have said about the Jefferson Memorial, that we say, "Newton, a man who bought shares in a morally repugnant slaving enterprise, saw an apple fall from a tree and..."?

We are all flawed. It's my view that people's flaws should be overlooked when reasonable. Nothing I know about Thomas Jefferson's life suggests that he committed slavery crimes outside the boundaries of his time nor that any of his main life motivation was to promote enslavement.

As I understand him, he was determined to create a society where people could be free. If his understanding of the word 'people' was different than now, at least his ideas supported changing that definition over time. Without him, the New World would not be as decent a place as it is. Even if it might have been better if he had been better, too.

I say judge memorials an the destruction by the intent of the memorial. I do not believe there is anything about the Jefferson Memorial that glorifies racism. I believe it intends to glorify freedom and equality. If Jefferson himself provides an object lesson in how much farther we have to go, so be it.

[This was discussed at length on my public facebook page HERE. The original article which this responds to is HERE.]