Tackling the Moral Dilemma of ‘Racist’ Statues
Promise Frank Ejiofor 24 June 2020

The tragic demise of George Floyd—an unarmed African American man who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for over nine minutes—has sparked protests around the globe including in Germany, the UK, France, and in parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Protesters’ central concern is not just the death of this particular African American life, but of the perceived systemic racism entrenched in American institutions. Democracy, so the argument goes, should be about justice, equality, tolerance—and, if America is the pinnacle and foremost promoter of these civic virtues everywhere, it is expected that the “home of the free” should take the lead in making these readily accessible to denizens within its own territory.

But protesters have capitalised on this remonstrance against racism to extend their rage over the relics of imperialism and slavery in other polities, particularly in the UK. Through the Black Lives Matter movement, many have now come to the realisation that racial structures abound around them, most notably in the erected statues of some “heroes” of the polities they inhabit. If these erected statues of these men are mere reflections of empire in a democracy meant to radiate respect for peoples of diverse heritage, the protesters’ contend, why do we really need to glorify them? Perhaps, to remind ourselves that we are slaves?


“Take them Down”

Bristol—an English city which benefitted a lot from slavery—was the first geographic locus where a statue was toppled in the UK—an act that has engendered debates and criticisms from politicians including UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson who considered it a criminal act. The statue of Edward Colston—one of the key philanthropists in the city who donated money acquired through trade in slaves—was removed and thrown into Bristol Harbour to the cheers of many present at the protest.

In Oxford, the statue of Cecil Rhodes—a former prime minister of the Cape Colony and an ardent supporter of British superiority and imperialism—at Oriel College has become the object of debate and protest as anti-racist movements under the auspices of Black Lives Matter marched in front of Oriel College to demand its removal. Recently, Oriel College has announced its plans to remove the statue, but Rhodes Must Fall campaigners would not believe this until it has actually been done. Furthermore, Sir Winston Churchill’s statue in London has been sprayed with graffiti as a mark of disapproval of some of his comments toward people of colour in former British colonies. And, in Poole Quay, the founder of the Scouts movement Robert Baden-Powell has attracted the attention of protestors to the extent that the Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) Council have decided to temporarily remove it for its protection.

But is the agitation by Black Lives Matter protesters to take these statues down morally justified? Of course, these protests have a point that we should not glorify people with ethically problematic moral character—for it is only natural that, to borrow Aristotle’s ethical framework, we praise only morally virtuous voluntary actions and, by the same measure, shame (or even blame) vicious acts. Slavery was an economic—but, to a very large extent, political—institution. It was based on the dispossession or impoverishment of some (the colonies) and the concomitant surplus accumulation of others, namely the empires.

Though slavery was justified by liberals at the time it was prevalent no one today—at least no one with some reasonable sensibility—would argue that it is justifiable for any human being to be commodified in much the same way that objects are fungible. But this picture of history and of the peoples who participated in commodifying their fellow human beings centuries ago is rather overly simplistic—for not only is our history saturated with the virtuous and vicious; in most cases, peoples harbour within them the seeds of virtue and vice. Our past heroes were anything but entirely racist: some were philanthropists invested in community development through the construction of hospitals and schools whilst others were the champions of freedom for their own people. It is foolhardy, I think, to attempt a neat separation of who is wholly virtuous through their lives and who is entirely vicious. If we agree that virtue and vice are components of one personality and indeed of every human epoch, then we are likely to desist from ascribing a puritanistic attitude toward our human past and embrace them in their contradictions as part and parcel of our human fallibilities—fallibilities that should conduit our present and future moral sensibilities.


Escape from Puritism

“Puritism” is the word I employ as a signification of the attempt by modern humans to sanitise the present by banishing the errors of the human past. The cosmopolitan philosopher Anthony Appiah has noted in his book The Lies That Bind that the concepts that are very central to our collective identities—concepts such as religion, class, race, culture, and nation—are really lies we have come to naturalise as infallible truths. Take, by way of example, the idea of race. The word black around which the Black Lives Matter protesters rally is itself, I think, the consequence of myriad socio-historical constructions that applies to no human being in the world. Indeed—to put it more modestly—no human is as black as a black shirt or as white as a white book or as brown as a brown teddy bear. But we have come to accept these terms in political life for myriad strategic purposes of contesting discriminations based on skin complexions.

Historically constructed lies are also at the root of all modern nation-states. The idea of the nation as bounded and internally homogeneous is itself a myth that applies to no nation-state in contemporary time. But these lies—of race and of nation—have not stopped us from being bound together for common purposes. Politicians rally around the nation to demonise migrants as much as the idea of the nation enables citizens to work together for common purposes (healthcare, education, pensions, for example). The fallacious idea of race has similarly not precluded people from joining hands to contest racial stereotypes and institutionalised racism. Does the mere fact that these concepts are historical lies nullify their utility today for political projects?

Or, for an alternative contrast, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign which is an attack against Rhodes’ racism. Cecil Rhodes—and, I think, it must be noted—left a huge fund that serves as the foundation for educating bright minds at the University of Oxford. Rhodes Scholarship is named after Rhodes and is the most prestigious scholarship in Oxford for incoming students around the world some of who would not be able to access an Oxford education without financial support. The scholarship has produced—and still produces—many global leaders and changemakers in different spheres of excellence in diverse parts of the world. In the same way, Edward Colston’s fund acquired from the Atlantic slave trade was utilised to erect schools and many other structures that have remained in Bristol until today: so far, there are over twenty different things named after Colston in Bristol.

Should we dispense with the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship which—to my mind—benefits living persons today? Should we close down schools or hospitals in Bristol which the slave trade enabled Colston to build for his community? What justifies keeping the Rhodes Scholarship and not his statue? Aren’t they coterminous by virtue of commemorating Rhodes’ life? Moral consistency is a moral virtue, too—and we would not be justified in doing the one without the other.

Although there is indeed no attempt to justify vicious acts, it seems to me that a perfectly puritistic attitude would suggest we discard the scholarship as well as the hospitals. But this slippery slope, to my mind, would be akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater—we miss some of the benefits those confer on us when we simplify the past by endeavouring to rid it of its moral inappositeness. In my view, we could keep those statues whilst putting up notes underneath them about their good and bad—and then ensure that in the future we do erect only those with the least vicious character. But we can decide who and what is worth erecting only through democratic reason—only through democratic, collective, dialogue will we be salvaged from the dangers of puritism.


The Quest for Democratic Reason

Collective dialogue is an inviolable tenet of democracy. Hélène Landemore has argued in her book Democratic Reason that decisions taken via democratic processes and procedures have a higher chance of being right than those taken by the few. Not only are deliberation and collective decision-making smart, they are inclusive. But the implication of this is that toppling and defacing statues devoid of democratic deliberation—precisely because of the perceived feeling that our identities are injured by them—is undemocratic, emblematic of the sorts of relativism that are dangerous to our cosmopolitan coexistence. Because democracy is what citizens run together, we must extirpate our tendencies to do it all alone based on our personal conceptions of the good—we must listen to one another as much as talk about our affectations, quandaries, and, yes, statues.


Promise Frank Ejiofor holds an MA in Political Science from the Central European University in Budapest. His research interests span constitutional politics, nationalism, moral and political theory.


Photo: Adrian Dennis / AFP

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