Don’t deny the brutality of history

By Robert Jensen

Published in Dallas Morning News · February, 2001

[This article was published in the Dallas Morning News, February 6, 2001.]

After learning that I am not native to the South, someone arguing with me about the moral legitimacy of the Confederate statues on the University of Texas campus finally reached his exasperation point. “What do you know about it,” he said. “You are from North Dakota!”

Actually, because I am from North Dakota, I know a lot about the denial of history and the glorification of injustice, racism and violence. Just like Southerners, I was born and raised in a place that was at ground zero for one of the American holocausts.

Both of these holocausts — the horrors of slavery and the genocide of indigenous people — left millions dead and millions more impoverished to benefit the Europeans who conquered the continent. The Indians who lived in what now is North Dakota were hunted and exterminated by white invaders with as much barbarism as could be assigned to white slavers.

Of course, the Dakotas weren’t the only place “settled” in this fashion. The great wealth of the entire country — North and South — is inextricably connected to these two holocausts. I agree with Southerners who point out that Northerners claiming higher moral ground are conveniently ignoring their own region’s history.

If we told the truth about this nation’s history, one conclusion is inescapable: The United States was built on the backs of nonwhite people. The Europeans and their descendants who created this country stole land and crushed souls. They killed and enslaved. These policies weren’t accidents but conscious decisions of people out to enrich themselves at the expense of others.

So, as a University of Texas professor, I am ashamed of the four statues of Confederate politicians and soldiers on campus. But as a son of North Dakota, I also am ashamed that the state’s Board of Higher Education late last year refused to drop the “Fighting Sioux” name and logo for the University of North Dakota’s sports teams, even though
Indian students, educators and tribal leaders had pleaded with the school to get rid of the offensive team mascot.

To call into question statues and team nicknames isn’t to try to rewrite history. Rather, it is to tell the truth about history. It isn’t disrespectful to someone’s great-grandfather who fought for the Confederacy. It simply is an attempt to be honest about what he fought for.

No matter how much one wants to talk about states’ rights, one of the primary reasons the Confederacy fought was to defend slavery and white supremacy. The fact that many Northerners also were racists doesn’t change that simple truth.

There is no honor in glorifying a genocidal past. There is no integrity in ignoring the calls of people for whom such symbols are an insult. Those symbols should be offensive to all of us, white and black, European and Indian, North and South.

There is honor in facing the past honestly. There is integrity in understanding that our history has left us with a society in which systematic injustice remains.

At the University of Texas, we are circulating a petition that asks the university to appoint a commission to consider what to do with the statues that stand in prominent positions on the campus’ South Mall: Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy; John H. Reagan, postmaster general of the Confederacy; and Gens. Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston.

We also hope the university community will focus more attention on such questions as: “How welcome do nonwhite students at UT feel?” and “Why do the recruitment and the retention of minority faculty members remain such problems?”

Yes, I am a Northerner by birth and inclination. But I am not a condescending Yankee. I am not naive about the brutal racist history of my home state, and I see no reason to deny that history.

Nor do I see any reason to deny the history of the Southern state I now call home.