Column: Campaigns flood us with reductive racial rhetoric. How can we push back?
The campaign that began in late 2017 to remove the Confederate statue on the University of Southern California’s campus did not come into being until the fall of 2018. Why was that?
The short answer is this: The Southern Poverty Law Center, which has become much more concerned with the issue of racism—not to say the Confederate statue was a symptom of that—pushed an effort in 2018 to remove the statute (although its own survey of the statue’s supporters found that “overwhelmingly, [the statue’s supporters] are white and largely male”). At that point, an ad hoc group of students—not a broad student coalition—pushed for a public petition to begin discussing removing the statue on campus.
“The campaign that began in late 2017 to remove the Confederacy statue at USC had no real chance of succeeding,” says Steve Sailer, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. (The students ultimately decided not to remove the statue but did go through with a similar effort to have it reviewed and possibly removed by the Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Commission.) “To the extent that the SPLC had a chance to have its cake and eat it, it would have wanted the statue removed, too.”
As a historian who studies racial dynamics, Sailer says he had “no idea this would even come up. It was an oddball idea”—that a group of students would attempt to remove a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was a revered Southern Baptist preacher and civil rights pioneer who died 15 years before the Confederacy existed—but it had been “floating around for years at the SPLC” and was “in part fueled by” the SPLC’s own survey of its supporters.
“The reality is,” Sailer says, “the Southern Poverty Law Center was never really an independent voice in the debate over Confederate statues. It was a major prop for the Confederacy.” Now its main focus, it turns out, is on