What statues say about race in America

Thomas Jefferson, after a long stint in New York's City Hall, is about to get the heave-ho, courtesy of city council members long convinced the statesman, polymath and slaver had no place there. Cue the supporters and detractors of a man who played an outsized role in the creation of the United States, and in its original racial sins.

Statues have been all the rage in recent years. As in, literal rage. Whether being pulled from their pedestals, picketed, spray painted or protected. At least for a moment, those hunks of bronze looking out over a public park through sightless eyes, gesturing grandly at a state capitol, or standing in for whole generations of soldiers, have become standing battlegrounds, and the catalysts for heated history lessons taught on the fly.

When they are toppled, or tossed into the nearest river, a chorus of defenders rises to rend their garments, gnash their teeth and threaten a wholesale disappearance of historical memory because some old slave-owner, Ku Kluxer or segregationist isn't preserved forever in monumental scale to whisper to the passerby, in effect, "You must remember my name, but forget what I did."

Along with the Robert E. Lees, Stonewall Jacksons, even the Lincolns and Grants who've come in for spasmodic attacks and stout defense, countless other memorials and monuments continue to talk to us about who we were, ask us who we are and challenge us about who we want to be.

Statues are literally fixed, immovable, unchanging images in stone and metal. They offer few opportunities for reshaping, recreating, reimagining, to reflect contemporary realities. When circumstance presents us with the opportunity to rethink a memorial, in an unquestionably low-stakes context, are we ever ready to try something new?

Don't ask Louis J. Heintz. A 19th-century citizen of The Bronx, a brewer and streets commissioner, he has been standing quietly in Joyce Kilmer Park on the Grand Concourse, just a baseball's toss from Yankee Stadium, for over a century. A big deal over a century ago, Heintz likely doesn't mean much to the more than a hundred thousand mostly Black and Latino people who call the neighborhood home today.

The Grand Concourse hasn't had a great century. The broad boulevard championed by Commissioner Heintz represented aspiration and elegance to its striving early residents. That was before white flight, the wrecking ball and economic decline hollowed out The Bronx.

Through it all, the Streets Commissioner stood and watched what modern life dished out for the city's poorest borough, and along the way his memorial lost most of the allegorical figure of Fame, a woman standing at the base, lifting a palm frond in tribute. Eventually, just Fame's midsection remained. Her hands, arms, feet, and most notably her head, were lost to posterity.

Here, if we wanted it, was an opportunity. The Citywide Monuments Conservation Program, and the Parks Department, planned to restore fame to the largely forgotten Louis J. Heintz, by returning Fame to his memorial.

Here, the impulses of history, restoration and memory clash. Purists might bridle at the idea of giving the face of today's Bronx to a century-old allegorical figure. It would be lampooned as silly "wokeness," of political correctness run amok.

However, since we don't know what she looked like, the palette of possible faces was wide open! Thus restoration becomes a battle not of right vs. wrong, but right vs. right, and somebody was going to have to lose.

Should anachronistic rules of memorial art allow the past to bind the present and eternally bind the future? To be an "accurate" allegory of Fame, all the new head had to show was the face of a woman. Given that there are almost four billion women on the planet, it is hard to think of a design requirement broader than that.

There was no accurate depiction of Fame's original head. In all existing photographs, she has her back to the people of The Bronx, as she pays homage to the impassive Mr. Heintz. No matter how it was accomplished, putting a good 21st-century head on Fame's restored shoulders would be a pure act of imagination.

There was no requirement to create an exact replica, or obsess over how Pierre Feitu, a Frenchman born in the 19th century and sculpting in the 20th, thought "she" looked.

Since Commissioner Heintz took his place above the pedestal in 1909, the South Bronx has changed. New York City, to which The Bronx was back then still a fairly recent addition, has changed. And again — this cannot be stressed enough — Fame could look like anybody, and our conception of anybody might be allowed to change as well. As long as she paid tribute to the long-forgotten Heintz, Fame would do the job she was created to perform.

She will soon have new arms, new feet and a new head. Perhaps it won't be a surprise to learn it has already been decided that Fame will not look like the Black and brown people who call the Concourse section of The Bronx home.

With absolutely no obligation to soothe hurt feelings, meet established expectations or copy a known work of art, the new Fame will be obviously, famously an imaginary woman of European descent.

Circumstances had given the Parks Department, and the worthies who populate the various oversight boards and commissions an unusual chance to say, "We think allegories, as representations of ideas in human form, can look like all kinds of different human beings."

Non-white figures have been used in classic sculptural language to represent the Americas, Africa and Asia for centuries. Clutching tobacco plants, exotic birds on their shoulders or with a monkey in their laps, they have often been placed in service to represent the exotic, and faraway, paying tribute to conquerors from the other side of the world.

They just couldn't pull the trigger.

This challenges conservators, and commissions with an uncomfortable state of play. Even in the 21st century, does convention still require that virtues and praiseworthy concepts like Justice, Learning, or Charity must adopt the classical form of the allegory and be white people, now and forever? Will we insist the foreign, the primitive, the exotic are now and will always be festooned with earrings, feathers, ankle bells and tropical fruit?

Once Fame is again splayed at the feet of Louis Heintz, she will not challenge, provoke or even quietly inquire of the borough's passersby, "Pssst … Hey, if Fame is a woman, what does she look like?" If The Bronx's present paid tribute to its past and present, what could that, what should that, look like?

Off the top of my head, three women from The Bronx could have suggested the face of modern Fame for the modern Bronx; Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Jennifer Lopez, raised in Castle Hill, and Irene Cara, the Oscar-winning vocalist who starred in what movie again?

Oh yeah. Fame.

The implicit, whispered, conclusion is that imaginary figures are, most properly, people of European descent. Even in Black and brown places, Love, Prudence, Bounty, Learning, all have white faces. That conclusion has taken us to some strange places in the past.

While passing the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia on foot, I saw a memorial that had escaped my notice for years until that very moment, called the "All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors." It was dedicated in 1934, and moved to a prominent place on the city's grand Franklin Boulevard, leading from City Hall to the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in 1994.

I looked at the figures of fighting men who encircled the monument. Like the men of the famed Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston, its figures looked like real people, rendered in bronze from actual Black men, rather than the artist J. Otto Schweizer's imagination of what generic Black men might look like. They are, in their early 20th-century uniforms, intent, dignified, solemn. They are looking toward an allegorical figure of Justice, and that's where the memorial gets really interesting.

Justice holds in her hands symbols for "Honor" and "Reward." At the back of the column are more allegorical figures, representing War, Liberty, Peace, and Plenty. The plaque below Justice reads, "Erected by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in Honor of Her Colored Soldiers."

A quick check on my phone revealed it was dedicated in 1934, and, after all, pretty cool, right? The Great Migration had seen the growth of big African-American communities in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and elsewhere. This monument would not wash away the stains of the race riots at the end of the First World War that brought horrendous violence to Black neighborhoods, driven by white hatred and rage. This was Pennsylvania's "thank you" to men who served in the segregated armed services not only in the Great War, but in the American Revolution, Civil War, Indian Wars, Spanish American War and the Philippine Insurrection. American expressions of gratitude to its Black citizens was rare enough, and a welcome and unexpected thing in 1934.

The soldiers are, naturally, all Black men. The sailors, too. But Justice? She's white. You should not be surprised to learn War, Liberty, Peace, and Plenty are all white, too. I've heard countless emotional arguments launched in the last two years about whether such a thing as "white privilege" exists. When asked, I sometimes reply by noting that to the extent it exists, it largely consists of beliefs unspoken, and assumptions unconsciously made, which is why the very idea of such privilege drives white people a little crazy. If it helps, imagine it as an invisible map, an overlay, a pattern outlined on the tangible landscape that stretches out from your own two feet. Some things just "are."

In 1934, justice, liberty, peace, and plenty were still strictly aspirations for most Black Americans. They had made war in the name of a country that promised they would have as good a shot at plenty as any other American, but too often was reluctant to follow through. Did the sculptor, a Swiss immigrant to the United States, ever think of Plenty as a woman who might have full lips, or a tight curl in her hair? Could Peace have the almond eyes and broad nose of a bronze head from Benin? Schweizer, born in Zurich during the Civil War, came to the US in his 30s, and won his reputation in the US sculpting war memorials, including seven on the Gettysburg battlefield alone.

Let's remember, an allegorical figure on a street in a big American city is purely a work of imagination. There was never an actual person "Peace," or "Liberty." In the visual language of the allegorical, these ideas could be rendered as any kind of woman. As long as "Plenty"'s playing the part, her ribs aren't poking out, or her sunken cheeks and hollowed eyes telling the opposite story, any well-fed woman will do.

In Philadelphia, in 1934, however, even imaginary women could not command too much imagination. Allegories, even those invented to honor Black men in uniform, were going to be white, even rendered in dark bronze. Were they made identifiably people of African descent, would it have been too much to bear for Philadelphia's then 2 million souls?

Today more black people live in Philadelphia than white ones. The war memorial seems a cultural relic, of a time now almost 90 years gone, when neither the sculptor, nor the commissioning sponsors could have imagined Black men fighting to protect a "Liberty" that had a face like theirs. At the same time, bronze is permanent. The mythical ladies on Franklin Boulevard will likely keep the faces they were born with, forever. And the "colored" soldiers and sailors will have to silently contemplate the promise of Justice, coming from the generous hands of a white person, forever.

Most Americans told the US Census Bureau last year they are white. But non-Hispanic whites as a share of America's overall population, and as an absolute number, declined over the last ten years. You may feel you have plenty on your plate already. In a browning America, you now have to add to the wealth gap, the wage gap, the education gap, the "statuary gap." That last one may be the hardest one of all to close.

Journalism legend: California’s recall vote does violence to the spirit of American election law

As a reporter, I have to know who the governor of California is. He, or she, is the chief executive of a state where one out of every eight Americans lives, and has an economy that would be one of the world's largest if California were a country. When it comes to who the governor of California should be, I have no opinion that matters. I am a former California resident, who has long voted in other places. What California voters choose, they get.

As an American, however, I do have an opinion about the process the state is undergoing right now. The law that sets out the mechanism for removing a Golden State governor is anything but golden. It is bad for democracy, bad for California and only encourages bad behavior among opposing political forces.

In the days after September 14, some 40 million Californians and 290 million of the rest of us will find out if Gavin Newsom keeps his job. To drag him in front of the state's voters once again took a massive signature-gathering effort, requiring the collection of at least 12 percent of the total vote cast for the office in the previous election. When the secretary of state, California's chief election officer, certified the collection of more than 1.7 million signatures, the lieutenant governor was required to schedule an election in 60 to 80 days. Inside the state, this machinery is pretty familiar. It was used to unseat another Democratic governor, Gray Davis, and replace him with Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003.

The choice of the largest single portion of voters can say with their ballots, "We do not want to remove this governor," only to find themselves "outvoted" by a fraction of that number.

The recall is, crucially, a two-step process. It asks the voters, in effect, a) "You want this guy to keep his job?" and b) "If you don't, who then?"

That's where it starts to get really difficult.

The first vote requires a sitting governor to attract 50 percent-plus-one vote of the total cast. The second vote is first past the post. The winner is the person who garners the most votes in Round Two. So, it is not entirely out of the question for Newsom to attract 49 percent of the vote, losing his seat, to be replaced by one of the 46 second round candidates who is "chosen" governor by 15 percent of the voters.

The great free-for-all of California's referendum system makes it very easy for anybody who thinks they might see a future governor in the mirror to run in the second part of the ballot, but bars the governor himself, or herself, from appearing there.

Thus, the choice of the largest single portion of voters can say with their ballots, "We do not want to remove this governor," only to find themselves "outvoted" by a fraction of that number.

Newsom opponents, the California GOP, and people who just like to watch this car-wreck unfold, will tell you this is all according to the rules. And they're telling you the truth. The signature drives, the enormous number of candidates, the two-step procedure, it's all set out in state electoral law. Newsom attempted to get his name into the second round but missed a filing date and on appeal was barred from appearing on it.

John Cox, the Republican who lost to Newsom in the last gubernatorial race by nearly 24 percent, is on the second-round ballot. So is Caitlyn Jenner, former world-ranked athlete, reality-television star and political neophyte. Larry Elder, a radio talk-show host and late entrant into the scrum, is among the top polling candidates to replace a governor polling around the 50 percent mark, with around 20 percent of the vote.

Regardless of party affiliation, regardless of who the individual personalities are and individual calculations of advantage, one thing is clear: when a small number of voters can thwart the will of a much larger number of voters, especially on the question of removing a legally elected office-holder, it does violence to the spirit of American election law. And yeah, yeah, yeah, not to the letter of the law.

The recall process, like California's famous or infamous ballot measure system, is a legacy of the Progressive Era of a century and more ago. Vast in size and potential wealth and small in population, California tried to empower voters against the industries that held disproportionate power there, including railroads, mining and oil interests.

If an executive, or legislator, was sent to Sacramento and found not to be doing the people's will, why not have the machinery to replace him? (And to be sure, back then it was always guaranteed to be a him.) These vast earthquakes in state government can be triggered on a whim, by an individual citizen ready to spearhead an effort to remove a disdained official, by a homeowner with a fire in his belly about property taxes, a millionaire pissed off about bilingual education, or now, by a deep-pocketed business ready to spend high to keep its costs low.

The recall process can create a coalition of the aggrieved: Newsom may be disliked by some for his breezy Bay Area liberalism, his climate change proposals, or his approach toward controlling the COVID-19 outbreak in the nation's largest state. By triggering the vote in a time away from primaries or elections for other offices, Newsom's opponents need only arouse the most motivated voters, while arguably millions of California's rank-and-file stay home, or fail to mail in a ballot that might save Newsom's governorship.

If Newsom survives the onslaught, he might want to make sure a future governor does not face his current predicament. Tinkering with the machinery of the recall process, for example, to require that an unsuccessful incumbent seeking retention automatically appears on the second round ballot, would go a long way toward preventing next week's entirely possible trashing of the principle of one person, one vote.

By long custom, we elect officials to serve in their offices for set terms. There are no snap elections called by prime ministers, no ability for voters to suddenly decide they only like a US senator for four years instead of six, or a mayor for three years instead of four. Don't like the job he, or she, is doing? We've been trained by long experience to simply look elsewhere when the end of a term rolls around.

Tinkering with the machinery of the recall process, for example, to require that an unsuccessful incumbent seeking retention automatically appears on the second round ballot, would go a long way toward preventing next week's entirely possible trashing of the principle of one person, one vote.

What is the lesson to a California politician? Granted, they include "don't go to a fancy restaurant for a party that appears to violate your own pandemic lockdown rules." (Noted.) But seriously, after two removals in less than 20 years, what future governor will want to try anything hard? What future governor will ask a state for sacrifice of any kind, when a twelfth of a fraction of the population that votes can force you to face another election in the middle of your term? What governor will lead a state by making necessary, but in the short term unpopular decisions, if she can be forced to scramble to save her job, faced by a candidate who might take it with significantly less support?

It's your state, Californians. It's your constitution and electoral system. Not mine. But democracy belongs to us all. It is looking a little fragile right now, as a US senate caucus chosen by a minority of voters continues to enjoy absolute veto power over the agenda of an opposing caucus, one favored by a far larger share of American voters.

When the normal rules of win-and-lose and try-next-time can be short-circuited by power plays defying the will of the voters, it creates cynicism about the people's will, and how that will is assessed.

In two pivotal states, North Carolina and Wisconsin, state legislatures sought to reduce new governors' powers because the legislative majority opposed them politically. In Wisconsin, the case was even worse, because the Republican majority in the legislature was a creature of map-rigging, an unstoppable force elected by a pronounced minority of voters.

If the beefs that begin in states make their way to the Supreme Court, a petitioner will face a court whose majority was chosen by presidents who won office without winning the popular vote, but had their election ratified by an Electoral College that magnifies the disproportionate power given to small and rural states.

Political scientists and theorists have told us for generations that the genius of the American system is that the minority gets a say. The buy-in of all parties comes from the ability to influence outcomes, and resist brute force majority rule. The founders and framers might have found a lot to like in principle, but I wonder what they would have so say about a winning candidate with 25 percent of the vote "beating" a candidate with 45 percent of the vote.

Watch California closely on September 14.

Happy Holidays!