Over the weekend, white supremacist groups organized a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. After the incident turned deadly on Saturday, President Trump blamed “many sides” for the violence. Then on Monday, after widespread criticism to his initial response, the president read a statement in which he clarified what he meant, saying, “Racism is evil. Those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.” But by Tuesday, the president changed his tune again, saying that there were “very fine people on both sides” and questioning whether removing a statue of Lee would mean that statues of George Washington, who the president pointed out was a slaveowner, would be next.
The episode has set off a debate about Confederate imagery, with Baltimore removing statues that celebrated Confederates on Wednesday morning. On the latest episode of Black on the Air, Larry Wilmore shared his thoughts on Confederate symbols in the South and Trump’s comments.
“Trump said, ‘You’re changing history when you do that,’ and, ‘You’re changing culture,’” Wilmore began. “And I say, ‘Yes. That is correct. We are changing history, and we are changing culture. Because we have to.’ [Trump] even said, ‘You’re airbrushing history.’ No, that’s actually what’s already been done. These Confederate statues are the airbrush of history. That’s what exists right now.”
Wilmore explained what Confederate statues mean to him, and why they aren’t symbols of Southern pride.
“Confederate statues and Confederate imagery, these are not symbols and images to remind Southern whites of their vaulted history or that type of thing. These are images to remind black people that they are niggers. OK? That’s what it was put there for. ‘Black people, you are niggers, and this is the symbol to remind you of that.’”
Most Confederate statues were erected during the early 20th century, around when the NAACP was founded and when the KKK saw a resurgence.
“Most of this shit started in the 1920s when the Klan was at their peak. That’s when most of these statues were put in place. And a black person living in this area knows that that’s what those symbols are there to remind them of — their place. Their place in society. ‘These symbols are to remind us that we are above you, and you are a nigger.’ That’s what those symbols are. That’s what they represent, and that’s why they need to get away.”
Finally, Wilmore gave an example:
“Can you imagine, if you’re a Jew living in Germany, and there’s all these images of the Nazi past that you’re just supposed to accept as somebody celebrating their culture? ‘So how do I get to the store?’ ‘Just go down Goebbels Lane and it’s right by Mengele Parkway. Just go down there and it’s next to the Hitler Auditorium. You know where that is, right?’ Could you imagine having to live with that shit every day just thrown in your fucking face? That’s what Confederate symbolism is for blacks living in the South. That’s what it feels like, you have to understand that.”
Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.