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Racial Justice Conflict: How “Historical” Racial Symbols Shape Perception, Practices, and Policy

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by Judy Rashid
September 2020

INTRODUCTION

As the world continues to grapple with racial injustice and unrest as masses of people from all ethnicities protest in the streets , this article examines the subliminal influence of historical racial symbols and practices namely, statues and monuments, slave plantation sites and tours, market houses where slaves were sold, and street names that bear the scars of slavery . These symbols and practices shape one’s perception and ultimately drive systemic discriminating practice and policy . The thought for the reader is to ponder how these practices might fuel the perception of inequality and hinder effective racial justice conflict management .

PERCEPTION AND SYMBOLISM

To effectively handle conflict, it is important to examine the role of perception in how someone sees or interprets an object, person, or even a situation. Our point of view, what we like and dislike, and how we recount an incident are controlled by patterns in our environment. More specifically, however, it is important to note that our perceptions may not be based on facts. Perception is often referred to as one’s own reality based on what is learned or experienced or how one feels about a person, place, or thing. In this regard, perception serves as a power of influence. Perception is then coupled with stereotypes which are based on prior assumptions or popular beliefs. Consequently, diversity (differences) plus misperception plus stereotype leads to conflict. Furthermore, mismanagement of intrapersonal conflict leads to violence, systemic injustice, and discrimination among individuals and groups.

FIRST THOUGHTS is an activity that is often used in conflict management training. The idea is to call out a word and the participant is to give their “first thought” when they hear the named word. As a trainer who has used this activity on several occasions, results indicate in after activity discussions, the vast majority of participants’ responses were shaped not by facts or experiences but by assumptions and or feelings about, say for instance, the country, group, race, or religion. Hughes, (2002) examined how Black students are affected by the perception of discrimination on campus. The responses of African American college students to the campus environment at a large Texas university were studied through interviews that focused on student adjustment to the college environment and the university’s response to students of color.

Hughes found that though the university is known for its strong sense of tradition, the traditions of the university do not make the black student comfortable. She reported that overt racist symbols and incidents were common on campus and in the surrounding town. In addition, there were very few black faculty members or administrators and there were few opportunities for mentoring or personal relationships with minority faculty. Students of color and other students were aware of the “other” education a university provides, namely the opportunity for personal growth and development that comes from social and intellectual interactions on campus outside of class. This subtle but powerful display and use of perception symbolism hampers well rounded student success and adds to historic oppression. In another study, perception of what it means to be a “real American” was conducted by Grinnell College through the use of a survey in December of 2018. (Who is a Real American, 2018). The responses were as follows: the ability to accept people of different racial backgrounds (81%); to accept people to accept people of different religious backgrounds (78%); to believe in treating people equally (90%); and to take responsibility for one’s actions (88%). The poll also found that a substantial minority of Americans subscribe to a more narrow view in which “real Americans” are those who are born in the United States (24%), who have lived in the United States most of their lives (23%), who are Christian (23%), or who speak English (44%). Though 90% of the people surveyed in this Grinnell Poll (2018) ascribed to treating people equally as being a “real American”, the time has come to take a serious look at what treating people equally fully entails, including the role and use of symbols in American life.

THE USE OF SYMBOLS: STATUES, MONUMENTS, STREETS, AND PLANTATION SITES

A symbol is a mark, sign, or word that indicates, signifies, or is understood as representing an idea, object, or relationship. Symbols are used to convey ideas and messages; symbols communicate messages. Semiotic studies is the study of sign process which explores the study of signs and symbols. (Wikipedia. Symbol) There have been numerous nationwide protests against the symbolism of statues and monuments and even in the case of some names on campus buildings, who as UNC history professor Jim Leloudis states, “used their positions to impose and maintain violent systems of racial subjugation “(Murphy, 2020) Some cities still maintain street names that denote a period of slavery in that area such as Market Street or Plantation Drive. Market streets can be found throughout America as in High Market Street and Low Market St. in Georgetown, South Carolina and Market Street in Fayetteville, NC; Greensboro, NC ; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania ; and Charleston, SC, just to name a few. Even some rivers denote elements of slavery such as the Neuse River in North Carolina or the Lynch River in South Carolina.

In addition, there are several hundreds of former Plantation sites throughout America marketed as “resorts”, “farms”, “mansions”, “museums”, “state historic parks”, or “national historic landmarks”. Some are still called Plantations and boasts of its well built structures and pristine architectural display or its “significance “ in American history, and some are often managed by the state or the National Park Service. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_plantations_in_the_United_States). Often tour brochures and websites highlight the purpose of touring plantations as being dedicated to teaching about the lives and work of enslaved people on the plantation, describing the elaborate Greek and Italian Architecture , citing the elements of a plantation – blacksmith, tanning shoppe, etc., and describing the floor plans of these “historic homes” as visitors relish in the elegance of 300 year old oak trees and grand Magnolias. The tour guides further hi-light the enormous makings of wealth garnered by the planters from free labor, and, as a result, the influence that they wielded in their area, the state, and the nation.

On the other hand, National Geographic describes the plantation system in America “as an instrument of British colonialism characterized by social and political inequality. It links the agricultural prosperity of the South with the domination by wealthy aristocrats and the exploitation of slave labor”. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/plantation-system/ The touring of former slave plantations serves to hi-light an institution, namely slavery, which upheld one people subservient to another . Thus, questions remain as to who benefit from these plantation tours and what messages are sent to the visitors some of which could serve as instigators and further fuel misperception and conflict.

Mirjam de Bruijn, an anthropologist at Leiden University of the Netherlands, responded to recent racial injustice protests in the Netherlands by stating the following: “Our colonial legacy is visible every day in our streets. There’s an inherent racism and acceptance of inequality. Racism is inside all of us.” (Holligan, 2020). The maintaining of these names, statues, plantation site tours, and even the names of rivers and streets serve as symbols of the “elephant in the room” which must be examined in order to manage this form of subliminal racial justice conflict.

Conclusion

Symbols convey messages and are intentional and purposed. Symbols have power and serve as reminders while shaping perception and molding conclusions. Symbols can be used to incite, insult, and intimidate, thus serving to keep conflict alive. The task is to test our “reality” through discovering the facts of the matter. Assumptions tested through real interactions of fact and person ushers in change of position. We must dare to become the adult in the world and examine our actions before implementing them. We must speak with each other and not at each other or about each other. Visits to plantation homes and names on streets, buildings, or statues are not just walks in the park or a glorious history lesson. Instead, recent public sentiment, as indicated through protests in countries around the world, have declared that these symbols and practices represent historic and systemic discrimination, social and economic inequality, and racial subjugation. Furthermore, all of these practices help to polarize racial perception and do not add to the practice of racial justice conflict resolution. Instead, as in the case of plantation tours, such activity help to perpetuate an oppressive way of life that no one, of good conscious, should honor 147 years after the end of plantation slavery. Social capital is defined as a person’s social net worth based on these factors: affiliation with organized social group, capable of changing, interactions within and among families, neighborhoods, and entire communities, trust, reciprocity, and cooperation among members of social network that aims to achieve common goals. (Thomas-Fair and Michael, 2005). We must increase our social capital in order to better society.

Diversity is an opportunity to learn from one another and not a platform to discriminate against each other. The time has come for real conversations about real things right in our midst regarding physical stigmas of symbolism, as noted in this article, which , if not addressed, will continue to stagger freedom, equality, and opportunity for all which are essential for an inclusive and fair society.

ENDNOTES


Holligan, A. (2020). Retrieved https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-53261944
Hughes, R.L. (2002). Whistling Dixie, Raising the Confederate Flag and Other Welcoming Mats:
African-American Students Talk about Change at Big Texas State University ; Paper presented at the Joint
National Conferences of the National Association of African American Studies,
National Association of Hispanic and Latino Studies, National Association of Native American Studies, and International Association of Asian Studies. (Houston, Texas, February 11-16). (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. 462041).
Murphy, Kate (July, 2020). UNC Panel votes to remove names from campus buildings tied to white supremacy. Retrieved https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/education/article244149042.html
Thomas-Fair, U.; Michael, K.H. (2005). Teacher, What Are Social Justice and Social Change? Paper. (OnLine submission). Atlanta, Georgia: Presented at the Meeting of the National Association of Multicultural Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED493023).
Who is a Real American? Overwhelming Agreement on Answer (2018). Retrieved from https://www.grinnell.edu/news/who-real-american-overwhelming-agreement-answer Symbol. Retrieved from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symbol#Historical_meaning. Wikipedia. List of plantations in the United States. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_plantations_in_the_United_States Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/plantation-system/ 5

Biography


Dr. Judy  Rashid has been involved in education for over 40 years as a former teacher, school principal, and university administrator.  After serving NC A&T State University for 25 years, she retired as the Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs / Dean of Students.  Presently she serves as Adjunct Faculty at NC A&T State University in the Department of Leadership Studies and Adult Education. 

Her research interests include law and higher education, conflict management and resolution, college personnel administration, organizational development, and international collaborative dialogue.

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