All students should participate in the Jefferson Davis, Confederate monuments debate

Claire Smith

The first of two public forums on the Jefferson Davis statue was held yesterday in the SAC. Although the forum was an earnest way to engage with campus on this very personal and painful issue for many, little opposition was given to the removal of the statue. The lack of action from the task force amid the repeated recommendations to remove the monuments may have complicated implications for its decision.

Unless you have been living under a rock the last four months, you know about the possible removal of the Jefferson Davis statue. This monument, as well as three other monuments of Confederate leaders, were erected in the 1930s as part of a project meant to commemorate the “true reunification” of the Union following World War I. However, in recent decades, it has adopted a much different meaning due to persisting struggles for equality in America. To many, the statues symbolize white supremacy as remnants of the Confederacy.

Most speakers at the forum were in favor of removing the statues. Several members of the campus community spoke movingly of the pain and discomfort they endure on campus on a daily basis as they pass the likenesses of men who at least partly made careers out of bigotry. Such expressions are vital to understanding and valuing the very personal nature of this debate on campus.

The forum attendees who spoke in favor of keeping the statues were, strangely, neither students nor faculty or staffers. UT enjoys a high degree of diversity on this 60,000-person campus, and this diversity must extend to beliefs on this issue, yet outsiders to campus were the only ones to speak up.

The resistance of students who oppose removal to become involved in the conversation, likely out of fear of reproach, is dangerous: It undermines the authority of the student body as a whole to dictate how the landscape of campus reflects University values by removing portions of the student body from discussions. A one-sided conversation on this issue simply won't do — to make the right decision for campus, the task force must hear all of the voices, even the unpopular ones.

Even without personal reasons for wanting the statues removed, it is easy to see why the statues are bizarre to some and important to others. These monuments are an uncomfortable, larger-than-life reminder of all that can go wrong when bigotry invades the social and political fabric of American life, making them valuable lessons to some.

To others, the monuments are a sharp reminder of ancestral pain and ongoing inequalities; an ever-present insult to human dignity looming over one of the most sacred campus locales (the site of commencement); a degradation to equality that demeans students’ values as individuals from their first day on campus until their last. In my mind, eradicating this from student life is surely more important than forever heralding a history lesson we already know. But when students are so resistant to take part in a vibrant conversation on this topic, it is impossible to gauge whether that feeling is widely shared and should be acted upon.

I do not want to belittle this issue by not respecting students' reasons for staying silent. Voicing unpopular opinions is never easy, but the trauma of this issue for many presents unique challenges. However, the gravity of this conversation mustn't allow students to misunderstand their importance in deciding the fate of these monuments. This is an issue that belongs to us and we must take ownership of it.

Removing the statues is not the grand political statement critics make it out to be, as it affects people on campus and no one else. It is not a vehicle for competing victimhood either, as giving students any measure of increased comfort on campus takes nothing away from others. This issue is certainly not about rewriting history, as the poignancy of the debate is dependent upon thorough understanding of past evils and how they infringe upon the present security of some students, faculty and staffers.

At the very heart of this debate, this is a campus conversation that belongs to the members of UT’s campus and no one else. This ideal demands active engagement by all parties to ensure the right course of action is met.

Let me state clearly that I am in favor of removing the statue to a history museum where it may be studied in context. I hope the task force makes that decision for many reasons, not least of which because it is so important to so many students. The prominence of this shared viewpoint on campus causes me to wish for the task force’s immediate decision, the celerity of which should match the urgency of the issue. However, I know there is a different viewpoint that is as sincerely held as mine. I do not believe this issue will truly be resolved, whether the statues stay or go, unless both sides of the debate participate. This is not only important for peace on campus, but it is necessary in order for the task force’s ultimate decision to gain legitimacy through a free exchange of ideas and expressions.

For these reasons, I commend the task force for instituting two public forums to take the temperature of campus opinion on these issues. Though this is a fine way to promote continued discussion of the issue by keeping it at the forefront of campus conscience, the results of yesterday's forum have failed to introduce any diversity of opinion to the task force's attention, although it certainly exists.

Though it is easy to believe that so many of the same opinion were expressed because that is the singular will of campus, the sheer size of campus renders such uniformity of belief impossible. Therefore, I urge the task force to design a referendum to be distributed digitally to the University's entire student body, faculty and staff before the task force's August 1 deadline. At the very least, the University should circulate the task force’s present survey via email. If this is accomplished, the task force will truly glean the opinions of all members of the campus community and be in a better position to make the best decision for campus. If this is accomplished, this issue may be put to rest and we as a campus may come together again.

Smith is a history and humanities senior from Austin. She is the editor-in-chief.