I've just read Stephen Clowney's lengthy and important article, "Landscape Fairness: Removing Discrimination from the Built Environment," which is an intensive study of monuments -- statues, parks, and the like -- around Lexington, Kentucky. Though the article uses Lexington as a test case, Steve's discussion of the ways that American history (largely the era of slavery and Civil War) is treated and how that affects how people -- particuarly African Americans -- think about history and how they behave today. Here is his abstract:
At its core, this Article argues that the everyday landscape is one of the most overlooked instruments of modern race-making. Drawing on evidence from geography and sociology, the paper begins by demonstrating that the built environment inscribes selective and misleading versions of the past in solid, material forms. These narratives — told through street renamings, parks, monuments, and buildings — ultimately marginalize African-American communities and transmit ideas about racial power across generations.
After demonstrating that the landscape remains the agar upon which racial hierarchies replicate themselves, the Article then pivots and examines current efforts to rid the built environment of discriminatory spaces. I put forth that contemporary attacks on the landscape are doomed to fail. The approaches suggested by academics in law and geography either turn a blind eye to the political economy of local decision-making or fail to consider entrenched legal precedent.
The final section of the manuscript lays out a policy proposal that could spark a new focus on issues of “landscape fairness.” I argue in favor of a set of basic procedural requirements that would force jurisdictions to reconsider the discriminatory places within their borders. Procedural mandates would force government to internalize values it might otherwise ignore, allow citizen-critics to challenge dominant historical narratives, and push communities to view the past (and future) in much more diverse terms.
Of course I like this a great deal. I am somewhat skeptical of just how much a monument affects how people think about a particular space. I'm reminded in this context of an article about the Nathan Bedford Forrest Park in Memphis, which is in an African American community. The reporter asked a bunch of people in the park what they thought about having it named after Forrest and many people had no idea who he was. Now, that's not to say that the monuments have no correlation with the attitudes of today's city leaders. They may very well have a good deal to say about current attitudes, I'm just wary of attributing much to the power of monuments to shape -- as opposed to reflect -- attitudes. Also, as I've said in several contexts of late (with regard to UNC and to UT-Austin) -- I'm skeptical of movements to remove monuments or rename buildings precisely because they offer the opportuity to forget our history. Now, Steve may very well say that forgetting history is an improvement over constantly remembering the era of slavery and celebrating the Confederacy. And on that score he might be correct. Or the other values he seeks to promote -- like racial equity -- may trump the value of remembering. For in remembering one of the things that we may accomplish is a perpetuation of racial hierarchy.
There is the question, how should we respond to these past injustices -- often what interests me are the decisions that led to economic inequality (like segregation in housing and schools) -- but the inequality in monuments and in public spaces -- like highways and walls that divide communities -- are other examples. How do we decide which to address and how do we ultimately address them? Steve has a suggestion for how to deal with subsequent changes to the landscape -- a sort of enviromental impact statement requirement for landscape changes.
Whatever your points of interpretation, I think you will enjoy Steve's paper very much. And I hope that people will take up these kinds of studies in many places -- maybe particularly in Richmond, where the landscape is so filled with images of the Confederacy even as they're re-making the landscape. Even in the twenty-some years since I last lived in Richmond there have been some huge changes -- such as the restoration of the Slave Burial Ground and the new Civil War interpretation center at the Tregedar Iron Works.
The image is the Robert E. Lee statue in Lee Park in Charlottesville. I don't have any pictures of Lexington, Kentucky, handy, so I was reaching for another image that fit with the theme of the paper.