Charlottesville, a quaint little town in the state of Virginia, caught itself in a middle of a socio-political strife, which began on the night of August 12, when two opposing groups clashed in a violent protest over the confederate monuments. The protesters marched down Hundreds of torch-carrying, white nationalists across the country marched towards the University of Virginia campus, in a planned demonstration to protest the removal of the confederate soldier Robert E Lee (“Charlottesville: Race and Terror”). These protesters clashed with counter protesters, leading to a violent confrontation engulfing the nation in a moral panic and sparking nationwide debates on race and radicalism in present times. This paper examines the issue from a sociological perspective, and includes an in-depth analysis of the symbolic interpretation of the statues to these groups, the social structures reflected in these statues, the significance and relevance of the issue, and the socio-political as well as socio-cultural movements which unfolded post the event.
The statue at the center of these violent clashes is that of Robert E Lee, a confederate general, viewed in present times, as a symbol of racism and a proponent of slavery. The protests were an aftermath of the City Council’s decision to remove the confederate statues and rechristen some of the parks named after Confederate generals. This decision, in turn was a consequence of a series of similar events unfolding in several southern cites, where dozens of confederate monuments were removed after years of public debates and legal battles (Chavez & Grinberg 2017). The confederate statues were targeted due to widespread belief by groups involved, regarding the social and moral values reflected by their presence. The decision was arrived at after years of lengthy debates and discussions involving diversity, the relevance and significance of such statues and the message it conveyed to a rapidly changing demographic of the nation (Chavez & Grinberg 2017).
On one end of the debate were white nationalist groups who opposed the removal of the statue and viewed them as part of the nation’s history, while the opposing groups were those who viewed these statues as symbols of hatred, bigotry, and racism at its core and traits that according to these groups, which were much more deeper than that such as encouraging ‘revisionism’ and an attack on ‘free speech. The opponents (groups in favor of demolishing the confederate monuments) argued that such monuments and /or ideologies hold no place in an evolving nation, which embraces diversity and prefers inclusion over divisiveness (McLaughlin 2017).
Those who were in favor of protecting these statues were fuelled by the idea that the liberals and those on the left, were trying to silence them, take over and ethnically cleanse the white Americans. This was reflected in their anti-semitic, anti-black chants of “Jews will not replace us”; “Blood and Soil”, and “White lives matter”. They believed that the Jews, and the liberals in general posed a threat to the American way of life, and were headed towards a society where there was no freedom of speech (Vice “Charlottesville: Race and Terror”). Those on the left, who were opposing the neo-Nazis and the radicals, on the other hand, were motivated by an inclusive ideology where they believed that the current instances of strife and violence were never about the confederate monuments, but in fact were a direct result of an on-going clash of ideologies between the liberals and the radicals, of racism and oppression, and of a constant reminder of the tragic history of bigotry and servitude of the minorities at the hands of the confederate generals whose statues adorn the cityscape, practically looking down on those they oppressed in the past (Vice “Charlottesville: Race and Terror”). The removal of these statues hence would mark the beginning of an era of revival and change, where the racial minorities
An analysis of this highly controversial issue of Confederate monuments in the US can help in understanding the widely contrasting views of two diverse groups of people toward a common object. The sociological perspective of the issue can also prove to be helpful in understanding the manner in which individuals or groups attach meanings to a symbol and the manner in which such meanings tend to change over time. The symbolic interaction theory of sociology, for instance, posits that objects do not have any meanings on their own, although certain individuals and/ or groups tend to attach meaning and values to it, based on their own perception and their understanding of things and events based on their lived experiences or their surroundings. The objects hence tend to receive meaning from the social actors. The meanings attached to these objects are a result of a physical attachment that such groups feel toward the objects in question, and are not an inherent feature of the object itself (Berg cited in Aksan, Kisac, Aydin, and Demirbuken 903). The interpretation of what the object means to different people hence may differ since it is assigned based on interpretations and interactions of people. Hence, facts related to these objects are in reality, a personal observation or inference of such people, and it is likely to change over time. The process of symbolic interaction thus entails interpreting the actions of these social actors or groups (Aksan, Kisac, Aydin, and Demirbuken 903).
Issues of race and gender, which are the fundamental aspects of our social lives, can be effectively studied and analyzed through the theory of symbolic interactionism. Race, for instance, according to this theory is a social construct which functions on the basis of the meaning attached to it by individuals and the manner in which individuals derive meaning about what and how one looks like. These social constructions allow individuals to be selective about who they interact with and dictate the manner in which they approach those that are similar or different them. The decision to interact or not to interact with people of a certain race or other such social construct is highly influenced by the stereotypical attributes assigned to each group over the years. The fundamental clash of ideologies of the two groups at conflict in the case of the Charlottesville, essentially explains the very root of the conflict. The white supremacists are often heard describing the Jews and the African Americans as the “other” or the outsiders, who they fear are taking over their country as they know it and are scheming to dissolve the values America is known for. The African Americans are routinely described as a violent, aggressive and a chaotic group, which further fueled their motivations to resist and even downplay the now popular Black Lives Matter movement and replace it with their own White Lives Matter movement instead, thereby asserting their own agenda and place in the country that seems to be slipping away from their grasps (Vice “Charlottesville: Race and Terror”).
The Charlottesville incident highlighted the impact of the decision to remove the controversial confederate monuments on the social structure. A social structure, according to Newman, is the framework on which a society is based and comprises of several components which includes social class, social status, roles of individuals within the society or the given framework, culture, various groups, as well as the social institutions. These social structures play a vital role in guiding people’s behavior and in shaping their attitudes toward things, objects, individuals or events. The position of an individual in the social structure shapes the way they perceive any event, and dictates their attitudes and behaviors towards the same (124). The social structures reflected in these statues, to the two warring groups are social status, which includes race, and class and social institutions, i.e. the legal systems as well as the government.
The conflict theory is based on the assumption that the factors such as power and authority are the fundamental reasons behind any conflict. The people with most power are likely to dominate and oppress those with less power and social status than them. The French revolution which changed the world as we know it, as well as the Charlottesville incidents explain the manner in which notions of liberty and equality motivated the oppressed groups to fight power and those in positions of authority. The French revolution and the Charlottesville incidents are both instances where the war led people to fight the symbols of royal and religious power in case of the former, and of oppression and racism in case of the latter (BBC The French Revolution).
- Aksna, Nilgun., Kisac, Buket., Aydin, Mufit., Demirbuken, Sumeyra., Symbolic Interaction Theory. Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences 1 (2009) 902 – 904
- Chavez, Nicole., Grinberg, Emanuella. “New Orleans begins controversial removal of Confederate monuments.” CNN, Cable News Network, 26 Apr. 2017, edition.cnn.com/2017/04/24/us/new-orleans-confederate-statues/index.html.
- McLaughlin, Elliot. “Charlottesville rally violence: How we got here.” CNN, Cable News Network, 14 August, 2017, http://edition.cnn.com/2017/08/14/us/charlottesville-rally-timeline-tick-tock/index.html