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Take It Down!: Symbolic Politics Is Just That

No one can right the wrongs perpetrated in the past and yet we must address the injustices of the present.

A crew removes the statue of confederateMatthew Fontaine Maury located at the intersection of Monument Avenue and N Belmont Avenue in Richmond, VA on July 2, 2020. (Photo: John McDonnell/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

A crew removes the statue of confederateMatthew Fontaine Maury located at the intersection of Monument Avenue and N Belmont Avenue in Richmond, VA on July 2, 2020. (Photo: John McDonnell/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

At this moment faculty, students, and administrators at our universities are busily meeting to discuss the renaming of buildings. At Emory in Atlanta, there is a call to rename Longstreet Means residence hall. The case against the name is this: Augustus Longstreet fought for the confederacy and Alexander Means supported the confederacy and wrote about his family’s slaves in his journals. William & Mary has begun a working group of administrators, alumni, students, faculty and staff to “develop principles on the naming and renaming of buildings, spaces and structures” on campus. While these are new efforts emerging in the wake the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed, they are also part of an ongoing effort by universities to address the sins of the past.

In 2011 Emory made a very public apology for the university’s ties to slavery. “Emory regrets both this undeniable wrong and the university’s decades of delay in acknowledging slavery’s harmful legacy,” then-President James Wagner said. In 2015 William & Mary worked in earnest “to remove the most visible manifestations and iconography of the Confederacy from campus.” Every version of the argument for redressing faults in the past takes a similar form (in President Wagner’s words): “society must admit its mistakes [in the past] so it can deal with future challenges.” Emory, Wagner says, “must live by those words as well.”

Emory and William & Mary are anything but unique in this ongoing process of atonement. Statues are coming down across the United States and in Europe. Christopher Columbus, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, the Confederate War Memorial in Dallas, Silent Sam in Chapel Hill have all come down, confederate flags are no longer welcome at state capitols and sporting events. To this we say: good riddance.

Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that students at the University of Wisconsin are calling for the removal of the Abraham Lincoln statue on the Madison campus. Not only did Lincoln lead the United States in a civil war against southern traitors and their slave economy, but the statue was paid for in part by freedmen, a celebratory dedication to a hero. At this moment, debate is swirling around the fate of a statue in Washington, DC. The statue depicts Lincoln holding a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. Kneeling at his feet is an unshackled black man. This week the Boston arts commission voted unanimously to remove a replica of the statue that stands in the Boston Common. What is the argument against the sculpture? Some say it “diminishes the agency of black people in securing their own liberation.” Others suggest it promotes white supremacy. Like the Lincoln statue in Madison, the Boston and DC statues were paid for by donations from freed slaves. When the statue was unveiled in 1876, Frederick Douglass delivered his most famous speech, the “Oration delivered on the occasion of the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Monument.” And if the Freedmen’s Monument is up for destruction, what do we do about Douglass himself? It was Douglass who, on his travels to Ireland to meet with the great abolitionist Daniel O’Connell, came to the conclusion that the “main cause” of the “extreme poverty and beggary” devastating Ireland during the potato famine was “Drunkenness.” Even Douglass repeated the colonial power’s racist rationale for dominating and starving a colonized people. If our monuments are memorials to moral purity, then our streets may end up very clean.

From the sublime heights of statue iconoclasm, to the more mundane business of commodity rebranding, name changes are under way for some commodity icons including Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben’s, Cream of Wheat, Mrs. Butterworth’s. All of these products are in the process of a rebrand—and of course a new rollout—in light of their dubious racial associations. Consider as well the fact that several Realtor groups are dropping the “master” bedroom and bathroom terms from their listings, and the owners of a popular Jewish deli will “implement new training and have changed bagel names that referred to Black athletes and musicians” on the menu.

No doubt every moment of protest and unrest is accompanied by confusion and mistakes as well as progress and success. Some of these actions are a long time in coming and bring about positive changes. Others, less so. But what we want to address here is the fact that all of them are politics in the symbolic register. Consider, for instance, the logic of Wagner’s claim; it is basic to every version of the naming controversy: “society must admit its mistakes so it can deal with future challenges.” The thought is right, but the logic is unclear.

We are inevitably invited to read it as saying “white people” must admit to their “racist past and to their current (unconscious or institutionally supported) racist actions.” The implicit claim that slavery is motivated by racism and that the problem is that white people have not taken responsibility for it. Whom does this mea culpa serve? Since virtually everyone in the audience for this statement, and those in support of renaming efforts, is certainly antislavery and antiracist (however imperfectly), there is a real danger that the aim of these efforts is to bask in our own disapproval of the past, to broadcast our superiority to past racists, while leaving unaddressed exploitation occurring in the present. This formulation misidentifies the historical wrong by substituting racism for slavery. It likewise substitutes whiteness, an ascriptive category, for slaveholding, which is an activity. Both moves render the actual historical wrong harder to see. What ends does this confusion serve?

"A symbolic politics has meaning of a certain kind, but no urgency. Scrubbing ignominious names off buildings is progress, but whatever symbolic efficacy it holds should not displace the immediate aim of confronting the exploitation that occurs within and around the walls of our newly named buildings."While the renaming campaign goes forward it might also be worth asking a few questions about actually existing minorities (so to speak)—rather than the long dead racists—at our universities: Were your custodial and food-service staff paid a living wage before COVID? Did they receive good healthcare? And job protections? Were they paid throughout the shutdown? Will cleaning crews be supplied proper PPE, and a living wage, as they clean our classrooms every day? Did contingent faculty lose salary and healthcare to protect an endowment (or because an endowment was so heavily invested in risky, illiquid funds that the university suddenly experienced a cashflow problem)? These are the questions that determine who gets to put food on the table and whether the way they do it is fair to them and conducive to general wellbeing.

Adolph Reed Jr. reflected on the last round of monument controversy as it swept through his hometown of New Orleans. Reed was happy to see confederate monuments come down, but as he also observed, “removing them is ultimately a rearguard undertaking and one entirely compatible with the dominant neoliberal ideal of social and racial justice.” As in that earlier moment, so it is today that “antiracist activists believe that struggle over symbolic residues of an obnoxious past can fuel or condense challenges to inequalities in the present.” But if the aim is to address inequalities in the present, Reed writes, then it can’t be the case that “white supremacy” was the problem. Rather, the “monuments [themselves] were about legitimizing a social order by displacing its political-economic foundation and imperatives onto a celebratory narrative of white racial-cultural heritage.” That being the case, then the antiracist critics today—the ones in charge of the destruction and renaming process—“accept that [legitimizing] narrative, that order’s ideological halo, on its own terms and demand only that its nonwhite victims and opponents be acknowledged and celebrated instead in the interest of righting past wrongs at the level of symbolic recognition.”

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The question we’re asking here is what kind of work is renaming doing and supposed to do? What aspects of racism and discrimination is it addressing, what does it exclude, and what do these controversies aim to exclude? Black people remain disproportionately exposed to the worst of capitalism’s exploitation, so the real question going forward is will there be further exploitation or will there be fair labor practices? A symbolic politics has meaning of a certain kind, but no urgency. Scrubbing ignominious names off buildings is progress, but whatever symbolic efficacy it holds should not displace the immediate aim of confronting the exploitation that occurs within and around the walls of our newly named buildings. 

What does symbolic politics distract us from? In spring 2010, students at Emory began raising concerns about contract labor, roughly 10 percent of the university’s total nonacademic workforce, while part-time employment is around 20 percent. In response, a Committee on Class and Labor was convened to study labor issues at the school. In its “Report and Recommendations,” the committee concludes that the “challenge is to find ways to honor positive dimensions of class differences—such as increased diversity of experience and background—while minimizing their inappropriate and unjust impact on the quality of our work life together.” What could they possibly mean by “positive dimensions” of class difference? They can only mean what we think they mean: poverty is an identity, being rich is an identity, vive la différence. The point about class difference—versus race, gender, culture—is to get rid of it, not to celebrate it. But the report assumes class difference is intractable and recommends we combat an attitude rather than exploitation, focus on an identity rather than our policies.

When we turn to Appendix D, class difference is once again about money. There, employee compensation is broken out into segments—minimum, maximum, and the deciles that separate the two. (Executive administrators are palpably absent from the data.) The weighted average minimum compensation figure is $23,510. The first decile is $26,246. A comparison between each segment and the Atlanta labor market follows, which shows that, while Emory stacks up against the local economy better the higher up the compensation scale one travels, it is roughly equivalent to the local labor market.

The problem is that Atlanta is the current and perennial champion of income inequality in the United States. Atlanta scored a Gini coefficient of 0.57 in 2018. A Gini coefficient of 0.0 indicates a perfectly even distribution of income; a 1.0 indicates a perfectly uneven distribution. The U.S. as a whole scored a 0.38 in the same year. Norway received a 0.25. Atlanta came in right between Namibia’s 0.55 and South Africa’s 0.58, among the countries studied the number one and number two most unequal countries in the world. To assuage fears that you’re exploiting your workers by pointing to your parity with the wider Atlanta labor market is a sordid strategy. It is quite literally to reassure those protesting workers’ unfair compensation by saying it’s every bit as just as South African labor, and nearly as good as Namibian. 

A few years after the 2013 study was submitted, the university reported on IRS forms 990 compensation paid to its vice president of investments and chief investment officer, Mary Cahill, of $1,750,936 (fiscal year 2016) and $3,300,143 (fiscal year 2017, which includes severance and other compensation in excess of base pay and bonuses). Assuming that the compensation of the least well-paid workers at Emory remained roughly flat between the report and fiscal year 2016, Cahill’s compensation was about 74 times that of the lowest paid workers. In 2017, the year of her windfall, it’s more like 140 times.

What came of the Committee on Class and Labor’s report? It’s hard to say. It arose from students’ concerns about contract labor—specifically concerning the food-service contractor Sodexo. Sodexo was removed and replaced in 2015 by Bon Appétit Management Company. So how do things stand now under the new regime? Under Sodexo, with their historic commitments to union-busting and low wages, full-time workers still typically received 40 hours and overtime. Under Bon Appétit, as one cook described the new situation, “They cut you off at 37 or 38 hours—they make sure nobody works overtime.” Bon Appétit management seemed to confirm the new reality. According to their communications director, while the company tries to give its full-time employees 40 hours per week, it “must also focus on balancing the needs of our business.” The general manager at the dining hall described the reduced hours as an effort to provide staff with “a sustainable lifestyle.” According to Bon Appétit’s mission statement, they aim to provide “sustainable foods,” a mission that is apparently made possible by the enforcement of a “sustainable lifestyle” among their employees on the floor. A healthy lifestyle that does not include benefits, overtime, or a living wage.

Sean Connelly, CEO of ConAgra, the company that owns the Mrs. Butterworth’s brand, one of the consumer products undergoing a precipitous rebranding campaign, made about $14.4 million in 2019, which is about 550 times what a “laborer” at ConAgra makes. That’s much worse than Cahill’s multiple of 140, but it’s the same order of magnitude. Of course, if we wanted to calculate the multiple using the compensation of a Bon Appétit worker, the task would be of a different kind. Apparently, even the Bon Appétit worker doesn’t know what the month’s wage will be.

Why do we bring up these facts and figures? Because they describe a problem to which our symbolic politics offers not a solution but an alternative. No one had to protest to convince Connelly that Mrs. Butterworth’s needed a rebrand. Whoever made that decision understood it was about selling a product, and not about improving the lives of its employees.

No one can right the wrongs perpetrated in the past. At best, we can revise the way we represent our relation to them. What we can set right is the injustice committed here and now.

Todd Cronan

Todd Cronan is Associate Professor of Art History at Emory University and Editor-in-Chief of nonsite.org.

Charles Palermo

Charles Palermo is a Professor of Art History at William & Mary and an editor of nonsite.org.

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