SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as 99¢ for the first month
SUBSCRIBE NOW
99¢ for the first month.

Renaming bases and removing statues that honor racist leaders will help America begin anew

In a healthy democracy, people should value the truth and not try to suppress it because it challenges their preferred narrative.

Kirsten Powers
Opinion columnist

Most Americans were reared on whitewashed fairy tales about the United States’ history with race. I wish we didn’t have so much ugliness in our history to contend with, but we do.

It’s time for us to grow up as a country and face the whole truth.

Many white Americans seem to be waking up to this fact. But there is an element on the right committed to pretending that they are the ones being victimized by the changes sweeping the country. These changes challenge the one-sided narrative of America crafted by a select group of white men.

Making changes toward progress

The most recent freakout on the right is in response to the demolition of statues and petitions to rename buildings that represent various white supremacist leaders of yore from Christopher Columbus to Robert E. Lee. The outrage has extended to the announcement by HBO Max that they would be withdrawing “Gone with the Wind” from their roster of films in order to add historical context before making it available again.

In a healthy democracy, people should value the truth and not try to suppress it because it challenges their preferred narrative. In our history, when people have confronted the white patriarchal colonialist narrative of this country they have been demonized, accused of lying and treated as haters of America. The fact that a private company deciding to add historical context to a racist movie is the cause for grown people to lose it demonstrates how blindly committed to a false narrative some Americans are.

We need to be able to absorb different perspectives into our thinking so as to develop a fuller understanding of America’s history and how it impacts our society.

Defaced Jefferson Davis statue in Richmond, Virginia, on June 10, 2020.

The painful truth is that many men we have valorized throughout our history were white supremacists. It’s one thing to provide context of the time, but it’s another to honor it. The example of Robert E. Lee is instructive. The famed Confederate general has been cast as a noble and somewhat reluctant warrior simply fighting to sustain a regional way of life. But he was a cruel slaveholder in an era when plenty people knew that slavery was evil. He led the charge to preserve it. He should not be honored anywhere in this country. Taking down the statues of Lee and renaming buildings bearing his name is the easiest of calls. It should have been done a long time ago.

That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be remembered. He and people like him are a shameful fact of American history. But the place for that story to be told is in textbooks, history books and museums seeking to educate people about the darkest and most shameful episodes in our history with full transparency.

'Where do you draw the line?'

As I watched the primal screams of conservatives on social media, the argument seemed to be that if you can’t tear down every statue, rename every building or contexualize every piece of art portraying white supremacy, then you should just do nothing.

This is a false binary choice meant to ensure no change ever happens.

Columnist Adriana Cohen tweeted her 2017 column titled “Ban It All” to imply she made a prophetic warning of current times. She wrote: “Let's remove any references to Christopher Columbus. Let's rename the George Washington Bridge, along with every other bridge, park, monument, building or street named after someone whom someone else finds offensive. And there you have it. The beginning of the end of our great nation. The ‘fall of Rome.’ ”

America was the keeper of democracy:We were imperfect but we kept trying, until now.

This over-the-top battle cry reflects the more encompassing hysteria rising on the right in the face America’s collision with its past. Yet nobody wants to “remove any references” to Columbus. Quite the contrary. We need to discuss Columbus and his brutal and murderous treatment of indigenous peoples until everyone understands exactly what happened. Like Lee, statues of Columbus belong in museums, not on pedestals in town squares.

As for “Gone With the Wind,” even had HBO Max removed it permanently (which it hasn’t), no lasting damage to America would have occurred.  If it’s too triggering to have HBO add historical context to a film that glamorizes plantation culture and whitewashes slavery, people can rent it on Amazon for $3.99.  

During my childhood in Alaska, we called the largest mountain in North America “Mount McKinley.” But that wasn’t its real name. Alaska’s indigenous people had called it Denali, meaning the “the high one” or the “the great one,” for thousands of years. Then one day a gold prospector decided it should be named after President William McKinley, and that name stuck for nearly a century. McKinley had no connection to Alaska, and in fact never set foot in the state. 

After a protracted battle, President Barack Obama restored the name to its original and rightful moniker of Denali. One of the biggest proponents of this measure was Alaska’s Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Interestingly, a primary obstacle to restoring the name was Ohio, birthplace of President McKinley. A string of white Ohio politicians cared more about honoring a dead president with no connection to Alaska than honoring Alaska’s indigenous people, who had been victims of cultural imperialism.

Biden:We must urgently root out systemic racism, from policing to housing to opportunity

If this renaming of the mountain, which was in fact a restoration to its rightful name, caused any harm to Alaska, I’ve yet to hear of it. But guess who suggested to Alaska's two U.S. senators in 2017 that he would be willing to change the name back to McKinley if they wanted? President Donald Trump. 

The reality is, moving statues to museums, renaming buildings and providing historical context to racist art are not the “fall of Rome” or the end of America. If we take the necessary steps, it will be the opposite: a new beginning.

Kirsten Powers, a CNN news analyst, is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors. Follow her on Twitter: @KirstenPowers