Removal Of Confederate Statue At UT Is Victory For Students & #BlackLivesMatter

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University of Texas President Greg Fenves announced to students by email that he decided it was time to relocate the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis to the Briscoe Center museum.

Today is a victory for UT students and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The students spoke out, they voted, and to a significant degree President Fenves didn’t just hear, he listened.

Fenves had assembled a task force led by Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement Gregory Vincent that issued several recommendations based on public feedback but the decision to remove the statue was his alone. It was a moment, but the movement to remove Jefferson from his perch was decades long. The crescendo hit critical mass when student government President Xavier Rotnofsky and Vice President Rohit Mandalapu beat out the greek candidates by running on a single issue platform of removing the statues. Many folks called it a fluke, but it wasn’t. They achieved what campaigns all over the country spend millions on every cycle, finding an issue that motivates young people to vote.

One of the most active voices behinds the scenes was SG Chief of Staff Taral Patel. He told me he was overjoyed by today’s decision and that it was a long time in the making, but cautioned that there was still much work to be done.  

“By placing these statues in an exhibit, we can learn about their mistakes but not continue to honor them on a pedestal in the center of campus. While the removal of this statue marks an important milestone in how far we are coming as a country and community, we have tremendous work to do with combating institutional racism and really ramping up diversity at institutions of higher education including UT.”

In his decision President Fenves also acknowledged the importance of symbolism and the “substantive” work that remains.

“Symbols are important, but we must also press ahead to create substantive change at the university. We have made progress in recent years — by the creation of new departments of African American and African Diaspora Studies and Mexican American and Latina/o Studies, and in student and faculty recruitment. We continue to defend the use of race and ethnicity as factors among many in a holistic review of applicants, consistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedents. But much remains to be done.”

I would have loved to see all of the Confederate statues relocated to the Briscoe Center, but there is always more work to do, and progress is usually a grind. Some say we shouldn’t spend time on these symbols, but statues are idols and they carry meaning — why else would they be erected?

The people who say we should not erase our history are correct. They can now go view the statues along with the rest of the collection of Confederate memorabilia at the Briscoe Center. But if we really care about preserving history, we have to be concerned about the measures our State Board of Education is taking to erase it from our textbooks. Removing mentions of KKK and Jim Crow from our textbooks is quite literally erasing history.

How else are students going to know there is a systematic government sanctioned reason why there are enormous racial disparities in health and education outcomes and an over representation of people of color in our prison system?

This should continue the conversation about how racism persists beyond individuals and into the core of taxpayer funded infrastructure. This isn’t just an issue for the left. Conservatives at FreedomWorks are calling on juvenile justice reform because of the enormous social and financial costs to mass incarceration.

Now it is time for our statewide elected officials to take note of the voices of young people who are looking for change and respond accordingly. This was echoed by Senators Rodney Ellis and Judith Zaffirini who renewed their call for Gov. Greg Abbott (a Longhorn himself) to appoint a taskforce to look into the possibility of removing the Confederate statues that litter the Capitol grounds.

“We hope the conversation at UT will encourage state leaders to have a similar debate about the numerous Confederate statues that dot the Capitol grounds. We renew our previous request—one that’s been echoed by many legislators, both Democrat and Republican—to create a task force to begin a serious conversation about how best to honor Texas’ past, ensure historical accuracy and celebrate figures who are relevant to our state and worthy of our praise.

We hope that such a task force can be convened and recommendations developed before the next legislative session convenes in January, 2017. Addressing this issue is important for Texans of all backgrounds, including the many children who visit the Capitol and are confronted with an inaccurate version of history that exalts the Confederacy.”

The greatest risk of losing a war is after winning a significant battle. This victory should serve as a milestone in the fight for justice and equality under the law and in our public spaces. Jefferson Davis’ legacy may no longer be celebrated but it remains entrenched in our government institutions. As sure as UT still fights to include race considerations in admissions, and courts continue to find racial discrimination in our voting laws and redistricting maps, we know there is a long road ahead. But at least today we moved in the right direction.

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About Author

Joe Deshotel

Joe was born and raised in Beaumont, Tx, but live music and politics brought him to Austin. He has worked in and around government and elections for over a decade including for a member of US Congress, the Texas Legislature, the Mayor of Austin. He currently serves as Communications Director for the Travis County Democratic Party. He is most interested in transportation, energy and technology issues. He also likes Texas Hold'em and commuting on his electric skateboard. Follow me on Twitter at @joethepleb.

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