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White Lies Matter: Director of the Kaufman Interfaith Institute defends racist monuments

August 6, 2020

I was contacted the other day by someone involved with GVSU concerning the Civil War monument in Allendale, Michigan.

The person who contacted me included a recent column by the Director of the Kaufman Interfaith Institute. The column by Doug Kindschi is fraught with all sorts of inaccurate information and problematic analysis, 

This is not the first time that the Kaufman Interfaith Institute has taken a problematic position on critical issues of the day. In September of 2016, they co-hosted a forum on Israel/Palestine, but both speakers were really biased in favor of the State of Israel. On this issue, the Kaufman Interfaith Institute has always sided with Israel and will not take a position on Israel’s Apartheid policies.

Doug Kindschi’s column, entitled, Response and Reflection on Monuments, takes the position that all monuments are important, as they are part of the nation’s history. Kindschi provides examples of other war monuments in Grand Rapids, then shifts to monuments that have primarily been erected through a project that Peter Secchia created.

Kindschi mentions the Chief Noonday statue and says that Noonday “welcomed the early settlers to the area.” The narrative on the statue that accompanies the Noonday statue also perpetuates a Settler Colonial narrative, which we have written about on the Grand Rapids People’s History Project site

Kindschi then goes on to mention the statue of Bishop Baraga, “an early Christian figure in the City’s history. This overly simplistic statement about Baraga fails to mention the role he played in Settler Colonialism in Michigan. Kindschi also includes in his list Arthur Vandenberg, and attributes to the former Senator that he played a role in the creation of the United Nations. It is true that Vandenberg played a role in the development of the UN, but he also was instrumental in the Marshal Plan and the creation of NATO, which were all critical aspects in the expansion of US imperialism after WWII

The Director of the Kaufman Interfaith Institute then cites a college classmate who was appointed to the American Battle Monuments Commission by both the Clinton and Obama administrations, saying in part:

The same can be said of what has been built on our National Mall, America’s “village green.”  Washington and Jefferson owned slaves.  Yet, one led the nation in establishing our country as a republic and democracy; and the other authored the words “all men are created equal,” which would eventually lead to the freeing of the slaves.  These men were not perfect but the underlying principles for which they stood were enduring and gave us the country we now have.

If we think we can erase American history or change social behavior by removing monuments and memorials — we are going down a dead-end.  Martin Luther King kept his eye on what would help African Americans during his time and that was the Civil Rights Act.  He didn’t waste a lot of time trying to tear down Confederate monuments.

And, fittingly, when a subsequent generation decided to remember King, they didn’t tear down the Jefferson Memorial.  They built a memorial to King, straight across the tidal basin from Jefferson where the two could look each other in the eye, each with his own words engraved in stone about what freedom and liberty should mean for the citizens of this country.  

That is the way to deal with Memorials — build new ones to show how the country can grow, change and embrace equality under the law for all of its citizens.

There are several things that are wrong with this commentary. First, the writer acknowledges that Washington and Jefferson were slave owners, but then minimizes that horror by saying they were not perfect. What we need to come to terms with is the fact that Washington and Jefferson were some of the architects of the founding policies of this county – genocide of indigenous people and the enslavement of people forcibly brought from Africa. It’s not just a question that these men own slaved, but that they founded a country based on genocide and slavery.

Second, using a portion of the legacy of Dr. King is a bullshit argument. We have to look at the totality of Dr. King’s legacy and there is nothing to suggest that Dr. King would not have supported the tearing down of monuments that celebrate White Supremacy. It is true that King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference made it possible to get Civil Rights legislation passed, but Dr. King acknowledged himself that it wasn’t enough and that Civil Rights legislation was inadequate, since it did nothing to deal with dismantling the economic system which produced millions of poor people.

Kindschi then concludes his column by stating, “I appreciate the sentiments expressed by Kidder and certainly hope that whatever the disposition of such statues and monuments, that it be handled not by angry mob violence, but by careful consideration by the appropriate representatives from our communities.”

People who are protesting everything from racist monuments to police violence have every right to be angry, but calling those protesting a mob is nothing more than borrowing from the narrative of those in power. And who exactly are the “appropriate representatives from our communities?” Sounds a lot like respectability politics to me. Only professionals or those with degrees should have a say on the matter of monuments, which is to say people like Doug Kindschi. My advice to Mr. Kindschi is that he better get out of the way of the people involved in the current Black Lives Matter movement, who, like the late John Lewis, said: 

“To those who have said, “Be patient and wait,” we must say that “patience” is a dirty and nasty word. We cannot be patient, we do not want to be free gradually. We want our freedom, and we want it now. We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence.”

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