Confederate Symbols Are Pollution

People gather around the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, Virginia, on June 4, 2020, amid continued protests over the police killing of George Floyd.
Photo: Getty

Nearly 800 monuments celebrating the Confederacy stand in public spaces across the U.S. today. A growing number of these racist monuments are being covered in trash bags, spray painted, and beheaded as protests against police violence expand. Others have been toppled or removed altogether.

It’s not only a meaningful step in addressing the country’s deep-rooted racism. It’s also a step toward creating more inclusive and safe spaces outdoors. For some residents, the bench outside their library or courthouse may be their most immediate access to the outdoors. For others, a national park or trail might be a place of solace and recreation. However, when a statue upholding white supremacy is towering over them or a mountain peak is named after a Confederate leader, those places become less welcoming to descendants of enslaved people. They’re textbook examples of pollution, which Merriam-Webster defines as “substances that make land, water, air, etc., dirty and not safe or suitable to use.”

That’s why their removal holds great power. It’s something we should all celebrate. These removals are an important step to ensure Black people enjoy public spaces in a way others may take for granted, but they’re only the first step in a process to create more equity outdoors—and everywhere, really—that will require much more time and attention.

“The outdoors is not this outside, far-away place that we need to travel to to get there. Nature is everywhere even if that means your windowsill or your patio or your balcony,” Yanira Castro, the communications director for Outdoor Afro, an organization that advocates bringing Black people into nature, told Earther.

When our most accessible public spaces prominently display these monuments, they signal to Black people in the U.S. “where they stand in history,” Castro said. “The monuments reflect a sense of centering whiteness as the norm and heralding people who caused harm to Black people, specifically in the woods. So when those monuments are up and are heralded as heroes, it is a signal that that space is not welcoming.”

As Castro noted, “the woods” are where white people historically lynched Black people and are also where Black people hid to escape slavery. There’s a “generational memory of trauma” associated with the outdoors, she said. Today, Black people make up only about 1 percent of visitors to public lands for a variety of reasons. The presence of Confederate memorials or names certainly doesn’t help.

The movement to remove Confederate monuments rose to national prominence in 2015 when white supremacist Dylann Roof massacred nine Black people in the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Beyond the monuments are place names and symbols of the Confederacy found throughout public spaces. The Southern Law Poverty Center (SPLC) has identified 1,747 in total, and 57 can be found in parks and on trails.

Out West, the few that exist are largely in the woods. There’s Jeff Davis Peak in Alpine County, California, named after Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederate states. Boise National Forest in Idaho is home to Robert E. Lee Creek, named after the notorious Confederate general. Efforts are underway to rename Jeff Davis Peak (a similarly named mountain in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park was renamed last year, though it remains on Google Maps), but the same can’t be said for many other harmful names and symbols that pepper the U.S. today.

“Public space should be a safe haven,” Lecia Brooks, the diversity and inclusion officer for the SPLC, told Earther. “It’s a place where people go to rest, engage in some exercise or recreation of some sort. To imagine having to go to a place that’s named after a leader of the Confederacy, especially if you’re African American... Now, people seem to really begin to understand what we mean when we say ‘institutional racism’ and ‘anti-Black racism.’ These [names and monuments] are the things that uphold these systems. These are manifestations of white supremacy.”

In comparison, few peaks, rivers, or natural areas are named in honor of Black leaders. A canyon in Utah, for example, is named for William Grandstaff, a Black rancher whose cattle roamed the lands in the 1800s. But the name until recently was problematic as hell: Negro Bill Canyon. The original name was even worse, using the n-word until the 1960s. In 2017, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names finally changed the name to Grandstaff Canyon.

There’s a long history of white people choosing the names of the wilderness areas that dot our maps. To make things worse, white people formalized place names without consulting the Indigenous people who have historically lived on these lands and already had names for them. Since at least the 1970s, there’s been an effort led by Indigenous and Black advocates to rename mountains and parks. Denali National Park—the name of which is rooted in variations of how Native Americans referred to North America’s tallest mountain—used to be named after former President William McKinley, who had never even set foot in Alaska where the mountain stands.

“Why are we naming this sacred largest mountain in the entire United States after a random white guy from Washington, D.C.? Why don’t we call it what the Native people called it: Mount Denali?” Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, told Earther, characterizing the argument for scrapping the McKinley name. “So that changing of that name was a real direct confrontation with the racism, which is literally inscribed in the geography of our nation.”

Removing names and statues is only the first step to addressing the racism that persists in the U.S., and making the outdoors a place where everyone can feel comfortable. The work goes a lot deeper for environmental and conservation groups that are just beginning their journey into addressing systemic racism. Many organizations have struggled with diversity internally, as well as speaking out about these issues externally. That’s finally beginning to change.

Joel Pannell, the associate director of the Sierra Club’s Outdoors for All campaign noted that white supremacy is “deeply intertwined” in this country’s public lands history. Indeed, Sierra Club founder John Muir was a racist who believed so strongly in “pristine” wilderness that he wrongly advocated for the violent removal of Indigenous people from their ancestral lands to create parklands.

“The Sierra Club remains committed to fighting racism in the outdoors— ensuring our parks are increasingly welcoming and inclusive for everyone,” Pannell wrote in a statement to Earther. “We rise in solidarity with frontline communities who are taking down these monuments to racism, and leading the ever-important work to create more just and equitable outdoor spaces for everyone.”

We saw a clear example of this inequity merely two weeks ago when a white woman in Central Park called the police on Christian Cooper, a Black birder, simply because he asked her to leash her dog (to protect wildlife, mind you). These are the types of power dynamics that often pervade outdoor public spaces and are where more work needs to be done even as monuments topple.

“Confederate monuments are just the beginning,” Elsa Mengistu, a core team organizer with Generation Green, a youth-led environmental group that is centering Black youth in its environmentalism, told Earther. “They’re a great symbolic start to begin with, but right now we’re living in a space of racial reckoning. [The work] doesn’t stop and end with one facet of racism because racism is part of every single system, every single institution that you can think of.”

That includes our public lands and who gets to enjoy them.

Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.

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Gawn Til November

I will say 1 thing.
I do not like the idea of destroying those monuments

I would prefer them be removed, yes, but put into museums as part of history. I think its important to remember that a monument of person X once stood in this location, but was defaced, beheaded, and ultimately removed because of movement Y. That monument was a symbol of hate, now a symbol of fighting the injustice it stood for.

Otherwise, I think we risk doing the very thing people are accusing ‘us’ for doing, which is ‘scrubbing the history books’
Just my $0.02