What the saga of Silent Sam can teach us about institutional white supremacy

Dec 11, 2019 at 1:00 am
Sounds about white: The saga of Silent Sam shows how institutionalized white supremacy works.
Sounds about white: The saga of Silent Sam shows how institutionalized white supremacy works. Martin Kraft, Wikimedia Commons

There's this story I've been obsessing over lately. Equal parts hilarious, pathetic, and infuriating, it's both an example of indefensibly awful governmental decision-making and — more important — emblematic of how institutional white supremacy can be so pervasive.

This is happening in my backyard — North Carolina — so let me get you up to speed. There are two things you should know about my state: Like other Southern states, we have an odious legacy on race — slavery, secession, the Wilmington coup of 1898, segregation, "urban renewal," Jesse Helms, the whole deal. Unlike other Southern states, however, we have a mostly progressive education legacy, centered on the oldest publicly chartered university in the country, the University of North Carolina.

Our story begins where these two threads converge. In 1913, the United Daughters of the Confederacy donated a monument to UNC. At its commemoration, Civil War veteran and local businessman Julian Carr — there's a town named for him a few miles down the road — fondly recalled the time he "horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds."

What became known as Silent Sam stood there for 105 years, until protesters toppled it in August 2018. In January, UNC-Chapel Hill's outgoing chancellor — she'd given her notice that day — had its base removed. The monument was stashed away, and that was that.

Or so everyone thought. But let me back up.

Silent Sam had seen protests for decades, but things had heated up a few years ago. After white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine Black people in South Carolina and Southern states began reconsidering their Confederate symbolism, North Carolina's right-wing General Assembly passed a law in 2015 barring the removal of Confederate monuments. Two years later, after neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, protesters in Durham ripped one down anyway. That fueled the fire around Silent Sam.

For a year, the demonstrations became increasingly tense. There were protests and counter-protests, cops and tear gas, white supremacists and neo-Confederates. The statue turned into a PR nightmare for UNC. By the time it came down, almost everyone on campus was glad to see it go.

That wasn't the case with UNC's Board of Governors, however. The BOG, which manages the 17-campus UNC System, is appointed by the General Assembly. So when the General Assembly took a hard right turn in 2011, so did the BOG. And when UNC-Chapel Hill's chancellor removed Silent Sam's base in January, it promptly removed her, months ahead of her scheduled departure. Several members insisted that Sam be returned to his former home — the hell with what students and faculty thought.

As it happens, neo-Confederates felt the same way. And here's where things get weird.

Jump ahead to Nov. 27, the day before Thanksgiving, when, out of the blue, UNC announced that it had reached a "settlement" with the North Carolina division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans over the disposition of Silent Sam. This was strange, considering no one could recall the SCV filing a lawsuit over the statue. Stranger still were the terms of the deal: Not only did the neo-Confederate group get custody of the monument, but it would also receive $2.5 million to build a facility to house it.

The statue turned into a PR nightmare for UNC. By the time it came down, almost everyone on campus was glad to see it go.

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A $2.5 million gift from the state to an organization that romanticizes and mythologizes the slaveholding South, with the money specifically going to further spread those racist myths? That seemed bad. It soon got worse.

By the weekend, we'd learned that the SCV's lawsuit, UNC's answer, and the consent decree — i.e., the settlement — had all been filed within minutes of each other. By Monday, we'd discovered that UNC's interim president and the BOG chairman had signed the consent decree days before the lawsuit was filed. And that's not the best part.

A local attorney and former BOG member published a leaked message from the SCV's "commander" to members detailing the group's secret negotiations with UNC. I'll gloss over the details, but here's the gist: The SCV had been looking for a way to sue over Silent Sam since it was toppled, but the group found that it didn't have a case. It didn't even have the legal standing to sue. Nonetheless, when the BOG learned about the possibility of a lawsuit, it preemptively approached the neo-Confederates about a settlement. So long as Silent Sam didn't end up on UNC's campus — too dangerous — UNC was willing to give the SCV whatever it wanted to avert a lawsuit that UNC knew it had no chance of losing.

Here I'll note that UNC didn't admit Black students until the 1950s, and by 1963 it had only 18 Black freshmen. The money it paid the SCV could cover the average debt of about 120 Black UNC graduates. Instead, it's going toward a shrine for a treasonous white-supremacist insurrection.

So far, no one at the BOG has tried to defend this shit sandwich, but as best as anyone can tell, they simply wanted the Silent Sam migraine to end. If it took paying Confederate fetishists a few million bucks to make that happen, so be it.

This is how institutionalized white supremacy works.

First, there was the presumption that objects meant to honor — not remember, but honor, which is what monuments do — those who fought to preserve chattel slavery should be protected by the state, and with it an implicit message that the descendants of the chattel are worth less than the descendants of the soldiers who fought to keep them in chains.

Second, there was the failure to think about the moral implications of giving neo-Confederates money that could help disadvantaged communities or pay for scholarships or go literally anywhere else, knowing the money will further racist lies about the Lost Cause.

These considerations, if they were ever considered at all, were dismissed as unimportant. Because, to the white people making these decisions, they were.

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