What to do with markers of our colonial past?

Page 3 – Comparing New Zealand's debate with the United States

‘I detest our Confederate monuments. But they should remain’

The ongoing debate in the United States regarding memorials associated with the Civil War (1861-65) makes for an interesting comparison with discussions in New Zealand. Fought at the same time as the New Zealand Wars campaigns in Taranaki, Waikato and the Bay of Plenty, the Civil War cost between 600,000 and 1 million American lives. The New Zealand Wars (1845-72) resulted in perhaps 3000 deaths, most of them Māori – a similar proportion of the population. Assessing the significance of an event on the basis of scale can diminish the impact of an event on those involved, so perspective needs to be maintained. Both conflicts had a profound impact – and legacy – on participants. While the debate on the ongoing relevance of Civil War memorials may appear more vociferous, and at times, violent, than its counterpart here, the challenge is to consider the meaning of memorials in both contexts.

Robert E. Lee statue

Wikimedia Commons

Statue of American Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, in Richmond, Virginia following Black Lives Matter protests, July 2020.

During 2020, US President Donald Trump has ‘doubled down’ in the face of a surge of protests against racial injustice and Confederate statues, and calls to rename military bases named after leaders of the Confederacy. In an address during Independence Day weekend in July, he expressed concern about a rise in ‘far-left fascism’ that sought to desecrate monuments to ‘great Americans’. The following day a statue of abolitionist Frederick Douglass was ripped from its base in Rochester, New York, prompting fears that this was retaliation against ‘the national fever over confederate monuments.’

In 2017, as debate about the Nixon memorial in Ōtāhuhu began, officials in Charlottesville, Virginia, announced that a statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee would be removed. Opposition to this move was swift. A subsequent ‘Unite the Right’ rally  was described as one of the largest white-supremacist events in recent US history. Marchers descended on the University of Virginia carrying torches and chanting slogans such as ‘White lives matter’ and ‘Blood and soil’ (a key slogan of Nazi ideology). These events, broadcast around the globe, evoked Ku Klux Klan or Nazi rallies of bygone eras. White supremacists clashed with counter-demonstrators. In one incident a woman was killed and 19 others injured when a car was deliberately driven into a crowd of counter-demonstrators.

A 2018 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center estimated that there were more than 1700 monuments to the Confederacy in public spaces. Lawrence A. Kuznar, professor of anthropology at Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne, declared: ‘I detest our Confederate monuments. But they should remain’. He felt their removal would be a ‘whitewashing of history’ in which we ‘turned our heads away from the inconvenient truths of our past.’ If allowed to stand, they could be used to ‘remind ourselves of what we are and are not, the cost our forebears paid for our freedom and to educate our children.’

Legal scholar and historian Annette Gordon-Reed, writing in the Harvard Gazette under the heading, ‘Must we allow symbols of racism on public land?’, sought to put the push to remove Confederate statues in context. In response to questions over whether their removal was an attempt to cover up or erase history, she explained that most statutes were not erected just after the war, but during later periods of tension over civil rights, ‘to send a message about white supremacy, and to sentimentalize people who had actively fought to preserve the system of slavery.’

The Confederate flag

The place and use of the Confederate flag in the modern era has been another area of debate in the United States and beyond. This flag enjoyed a revival in relatively recent times in popular culture – music, films and television. It has been used as a kitsch expression of Americana, popping up in themed bars and cafes across the globe. It is often associated with the image of the unpretentious, southern white male or ‘good ole boy’. For some white Southerners, the Confederate flag is a symbol of pride in their heritage and states’ rights, not just a historical commemoration of the losing side in the American Civil War. But its widespread use began as a response to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In contemporary America it has become strongly associated with white nationalism and white supremacy, and it is viewed as a flag of intimidation, symbolic of the days of slavery and then segregation.

Confederate battle flag

Wikimedia Commons

Confederate battle flag flying in rural North Carolina.

In 2015, following the murder of nine black church members in Charleston, South Carolina, by self-professed white supremacist Dylann Roof, pictures emerged of Roof posing with the Confederate flag. This sparked fresh debate on the appropriateness of the flag continuing to be flown from the dome of the state capitol building in Columbia. Lawmakers, activists and citizens urged the state government to take the flag down. It had flown from the capitol building since 1961, in what Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson described as a ‘symbol of massive resistance to racial desegregation.’ In June 2020, as Black Lives Matter protests intensified, Mississippi, the only remaining state with a flag sporting the Confederate insignia, finally passed legislation to remove the Confederate emblem from its flag.

The flag debate in the United States has reached into other aspects of life, including sport. The incredibly popular National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (Nascar), long considered a bastion of Southern culture, also moved to ban the Confederate flag from its races. It has been a familiar sight at stock car events for more than 70 years. The decision, greeted with relief in some quarters, was condemned by a significant number of Nascar fans. In one survey, 44% of Nascar fans believed that they ‘should be allowed to express themselves however they want, including by displaying the Confederate flag.’ President Donald Trump weighed in on the matter, criticising Nascar over its decision to ban the flag.

Somewhat strangely, the Confederate flag has been used by the Rotorua Rebels Superstock team since the 1980s. Some questioned the relevance of the Confederate flag to a stockcar club in New Zealand. The club adopted a ‘nothing sinister to see here’ defence, claiming that the flag had been used merely to ‘acknowledge the battles that come with teams racing’. Race relations conciliator Meng Foon believed it would be ‘provocative to continue to use the Confederate flag in a sports club setting’. University of Auckland senior history lecturer Paul Taillon stated that the flag had to be seen in its original context – ‘the Confederacy seceded to protect slavery and to maintain a society based in white supremacy’. The club decided to begin looking for a new flag that would ‘continue to reflect the pride and honour of … past and present teams and supporters.’

The Rotorua Rebels were not the only international sports team to come under scrutiny for their use of the Confederate flag. Fans of Ireland’s Cork hurling team, nicknamed the ‘Rebels’, have for decades adopted the flag as a rallying symbol at games. Given Ireland’s own history of rebellion, some might wonder why they would look to the United States for such symbolism. Many fans claimed the flag was used simply because it was the same colour as the team shirt. Following the events in Charlottesville in 2017, calls were made to refrain from using it at games. These calls increased in 2020, prompting the club chair to announce that any flags displayed at games ‘would be confiscated’; it ‘has no place in our grounds or in supporting Cork teams.’ A local city councillor said that while ‘people’s sensibilities and sensitivities had been aroused’ by recent events in the United States, the displaying of the flag by Cork supporters was ‘not a political statement’ but was merely showing support for their team.

If the Confederate flag is not seen in its full historical context, its use can be all too easily construed as a harmless expression of support or a ‘celebration of the underdog’.

Money talks

In the United States, many sponsors of professional sport have faced mounting pressure because of their association with teams and franchises with names or logos long seen as racist. The Washington Redskins American football team is one such example, as are fellow NFL side the Kansas City Chiefs, ice hockey franchise the Chicago Blackhawks, and Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves.

The Redskins’ founding owner, George Preston Marshall, supported racial segregation, and the Redskins were the last major-league football team to allow black players onto their roster. They only relented when the government threatened to revoke the lease on their stadium in 1962. A statue of Marshall that stood at the stadium was vandalised in June 2020, prompting its removal. It was also announced that the stadium would remove his name from the Ring of Fame, a level of the stadium that highlights contributions made by individuals to the team's history.

The current owner of the team, Dan Snyder, a boyhood fan, had ‘vowed to never change its moniker’. But money talks. When its major sponsors threatened to end their support unless it considered renaming itself, the decision was made to rebrand. The team has yet to announce its new name and is currently the Washington Football Team. Many believed it was the right decision, although one of its former African-American players, Vernon Davis, disagreed. He felt ‘hurt’ by the name change, as if ‘a part of him had been taken away.’

Some Kansas City Chiefs fans recognised that they too would ‘have to look themselves in the mirror and face some tough questions.’ For Lyle Graversen, a diehard fan who runs a popular fan website, the Chiefs have ‘become part of my identity’. He doesn’t see the term ‘Chief’ as derogatory, and the Chiefs insignia isn’t a racist image like the now retired Chief Wahoo of Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians. ‘So why would it ever need to change? I’m certainly not someone that’s quick to jump on the “cancel culture” bandwagon just because it’s trendy.’ Graversen believed that while the previous Washington team name was a racial slur, chiefs are respected leaders in Native American culture, so why isn’t it a sign of respect that a team would want to be named after them?

Stephanie Fryberg, an expert on the impact of Native American mascots, stressed the importance of drawing a clear line between intent and impact. ‘The Chiefs may claim they intend to honor Native Peoples, but the science does not support this assertion … it clearly demonstrates that there are no benefits for Natives being used as mascots.’ Two things Fryberg found especially problematic were the use by fans of a hand gesture known as the ‘Tomahawk Chop’, and the fact that some wore Native American costumes to games. Graversen concluded that while many fans ‘may not want a Chiefs name change, this discussion is less about what we “want” and [more about] what is the right thing to do.’

In 2019, in the wake of the Christchurch mosque terrorist attacks, questions were raised about the appropriateness of the Crusaders name for the local rugby franchise, due to its association with the religious wars between the Muslims and Christians in the Middle Ages. Some argued that the name could be seen in the wider context of being a ‘crusader’ for any number of noble causes, but such a defence was hard to maintain when the logo on the team shirt was a medieval knight brandishing a sword. Pre-match ‘entertainment’ at home games consisted of horseback riders kitted out as knights in chain mail, brandishing swords, doing laps of the ground. Captain Sam Whitelock celebrated winning the 2018 Super Rugby championship by thrusting a sword into the Christchurch Stadium turf.

Canterbury Crusaders horsemen

Wikimedia Commons

Canterbury Crusaders horsemen entertain the crowd, 2006.

A number of fans argued that it ‘had always been the Crusaders’ and the name ‘wasn’t really going to hurt anybody.’ A petition to retain the name attracted 25,000 signatures. Its organiser, Shane Cannons, mixed his metaphors in expressing his disquiet – a name change would be both a ‘knee-jerk reaction’ and a ‘bitter pill to swallow’. A familiar argument unfolded as supporters of retaining the name asked, ‘Where will it all stop?’ Some argued that if the Crusaders were going to be ‘picked on’, then why not the Highlanders ‘for the England–Scottish wars that happened years ago’, or the Chiefs because of the ‘Māori–European settler wars.’ Some disingenuously defended the retention of the name as not ‘letting the gunman take anything more from our city.’

Others thought that, in the circumstances, a name change would be appropriate. Steve Deane, writing in theSpinoff under the heading Time to end rugby’s uneasy, ill-chosen Crusade, maintained that the ‘Canterbury and Tasman’s Super Rugby franchise can no longer be called the Crusaders – any more than it can be called the Jihadis. Holy wars, whatever their persuasion, aren’t cool. Celebrating, glamorising or minimising holy wars is not a correct thing for any community to do, much less one that has witnessed first-hand the horrific reality of religious terrorism.’

As the franchise weighed up what to do, it emerged that concerns about the team’s name had been raised when it was conceived. In a letter to sponsors, it acknowledged that the name had been ‘problematic from the beginning and hanging onto it was an example of naivety’. Despite this, a decision was made in late 2019 to keep the name but change the logo. Gone was the sword-wielding knight, replaced by a red and black symbol. Crusaders CEO Colin Mansbridge said the abstract design was shaped by ‘our natural landscape which stretches from the top of the Southern Alps to the depths of our moana.’ Even though the name was retained, not all accepted the change of logo, with some describing the decision as ‘gutless.’ Gone also for the COVID-19-disrupted 2020 season was the martial match-day entertainment.

Skills section

Don’t forget to visit our skills section of the Classroom to find some ideas as to how we can interrogate the memorials and monuments from our past to support a social inquiry approach to learning and support teachers and students to engage with issues and ideas critically.
How to cite this page

'Comparing New Zealand's debate with the United States', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/te-akomanga/contexts-activities/comparing-new-zealands-debate-united-states, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 27-Sep-2021

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