When Impossible Becomes Inevitable: The Fall of ‘Petty Racism’

The removal of Confederate statues around Richmond, Va., had a personal resonance for me, a Richmond native who once lived around the corner from the Robert E. Lee monument – the only one of the five monuments to rebel figures still (as I write this) standing on Monument Avenue. I used to go jogging on the avenue’s median starting at Lee, veering around Jefferson Davis and turning to retrace my steps as I approached Stonewall Jackson.

At that time, a little over 40 years ago, there was as yet no organized movement to remove the statues, although people of my political persuasion were more than a little embarrassed by them. When visited by friends from out of town I would joke that “a lot of people here think the Civil War never ended.”

It wasn’t until years later that I was fully educated about the true significance of the monuments: not misplaced nostalgia for the old South so much as a declaration of white supremacy in the present. They were full-time advertisements that whites were in charge and blacks might as well get used to it. The statues stood even for decades after Richmond was majority black, with an African American mayor and a majority-black city council. However, that didn’t mean that everyone was reconciled to their presence: once, well before I lived in the neighborhood, the avenue woke up to the statue of Davis with black paint covering his face and hands. Many years later – in 2015 – the legend “Black Lives Matter” was spray-painted on the likeness of the Confederate president. Since then calls for the removal of the statues became more prominent, although inertia always won – it was easier to do nothing than something.

As Leon Trotsky said, “revolution is impossible until it’s inevitable.” He spoke from experience; the socialist revolution he sought seemed stuck in neutral until the events of 1917 opened the floodgates. As a socialist activist in the decidedly conservative late-20th century, I could relate to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s often-overlooked novel Lenin in Zurich in which the exiled title character meets with other revolutionary expatriates, writes letters and articles, and otherwise seems to be spinning his wheels until he receives the news: The tsar has abdicated! Russia is in upheaval! Rush to Petrograd at once!

Suddenly, Confederate statues began to fall one by one, not just in Richmond or Virginia but wherever they stood. DC’s only public monument to a Confederate figure – General Albert Pike – was pulled down and burned by activists on Juneteenth. The DC government, the public and even the Freemasons who erected the statue to one of their prominent leaders had been in agreement for decades that it should go, but resistance from the National Park Service, which controlled the land on which it stood, frustrated legal measures to remove it. It took the revolutionary momentum of 2020 to topple it through non-bureaucratic means.

The energy for removing monuments to racists exploded beyond Confederates. Statues of Christopher Columbus, that architect of colonialism and genocide, also fell around the country (including in Richmond). Here in DC, protestors tried but failed to pull down the Lafayette Square statue of Andrew Jackson, who as president ordered the removal of 60,000 Native Americans from the East to the interior of the country, with some 4,000 of them dying along the Trail of Tears.

And then there was George Preston Marshall, the founder of Washington’s professional football team. Until a little over a month ago a giant stone slab paying tribute to Marshall stood outside old, abandoned RFK stadium where the team once played. For years Native American activists and non-Native allies had agitated for the monument to be removed. They pointed out that Marshall not only selected the team’s name, a dictionary-defined racial slur against Native Americans (which I will not repeat), but also refused to sign any non-white players until pressured to integrate in 1962 by the Kennedy Administration as a condition for building the stadium on federal land.

Then on the same date the Pike statue fell, the DC government unceremoniously removed the Marshall monument. Soon after, the team announced it would scrub all mention of Marshall from FedEx Field, its current stadium.

But the team had one other legacy to contend with.

An even more toxic issue was the team’s offensive name. For decades Native Americans had been fighting for a name change, the most serious challenge being litigation, led by Native activists Suzan Shown Harjo and Amanda Blackhorse, to deprive the team of its ability to copyright a name many found offensive. Team owner Daniel Snyder defied the litigants, telling USA Today in 2013: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”

But even after the Supreme Court ruled against the litigants in 2018, Natives and their non-native allies kept up the pressure. A group of fans that opposed the name, Rebrand Washington Football (RWF), formed in 2015 and carried on a five-and-a-half year campaign in which it collected over 10,000 petition signatures demanding a name change. (Disclosure: I am active in RWF).

Nevertheless, the campaign against the name seemed like it would be a long, uphill struggle. Then came George Floyd, the impossible became inevitable, and the name-change advocates had the wind at their backs. Tokens of racism everywhere had to go. And Snyder’s “never” lasted a mere seven years. The last straw was the revolt of the team’s corporate sponsors FedEx, Bank of America and Pepsico, with Nike removing all team-branded merchandise from its website. Retaining the name was draining Snyder’s wallet. On July 3 the team announced it would “review” a possible name change. Ten days later it said it would retire the name and announce a new one at an undetermined date in the future.

This victory after years of struggle elated the movement, but also left it wary. Many activists hoped for a clean “rebrand,” free of any Native or other ethnic connotations that might appropriate and stereotype a people. The team was mum on what the new name might be, but rumors persisted that it might choose a moniker such as “Warriors” that still carried images of movie Indians on a rampage. Yet the final recognition that the old name had to go validated the years of struggle which kept the embers of the issue burning until the killing of George Floyd provided the fuel.

What has the new anti-racism revolution accomplished? And what has yet to be achieved?

The football team’s name change; the fall of statues of Confederates, colonizers and other racists; the acceleration in renaming of schools and other institutions– none of these eliminate racism or its effects. Racism’s malign legacy was laid bare not only by the killing of George Floyd but also by the COVID-19 crisis which took its heaviest toll on communities of color.

But the achievements have been real and meaningful nonetheless. The upheavals of 2020 could be considered the final demise of “petty racism” in the United States, with the final assault of “grand racism” yet to come. I draw a parallel to the systems of “petty apartheid” and “grand apartheid” in pre-1990 South Africa, the systems for maintaining white supremacy in a country in which whites were a minority. The parallels were not exact: in South African terms, “grand apartheid” referred to the laws limiting where blacks could live and work and effectively disenfranchising them in their own country. “Petty apartheid” referred to segregation of facilities: beaches, waiting rooms, parks and schools, among many others.

All of these restrictions were supposedly wiped away in the United States by a previous revolution, the civil rights achievements of the 1950s and 1960s. But there remained the vestiges of the old Jim Crow order, tolerated and even encouraged by the powers that be: the Confederate monuments, the displays of the Confederate battle flag, and army bases named for Southern generals as well as schools (as many still are). For Native Americans, there remained the stereotyped portrayals in movies and television, commercial products appropriating their heritage, and the offensive team names – not just patently offensive names such as that of the Washington team, but monikers such as Braves, Indians and Chiefs which relegated diverse histories and cultures to that of a generic play-Indian and encouraged insulting logos such as the recently retired “Chief Wahoo” of the Cleveland Indians as well the Atlanta Braves’ “Chief Noc-a-Homa” and the “tomahawk chop.” These could be considered “petty racism;” not “petty” as in “not important” but rather casually insulting, demeaning, a sometimes unthinking view of persons of color that rendered them less than fully human.

But in America a sort of “grand racism” remains. For blacks it is the racism of police violence, of disparities in wealth and opportunity, of neglected neighborhoods that invoke despair, of still-unequal schools that fuel the school-to-prison pipeline. For Native Americans it is the racism of reservations choked with poverty, disease and addiction.

The two are linked. If we think of people in terms of stereotypes and as less than human, it becomes easier to engage in grand and pervasive racism. Petty racism becomes an ideology of inferiority that justifies white supremacy and segregation.

Once we acknowledge that black lives matter, that Native Americans are not our mascots, there remains another revolution to win: the battle for true social and economic equality for all Americans.

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