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Confederate Symbols as Ugly Panopticon: Psychological Shackles

About a decade ago, a distant family relative, M., immigrated to Chicago. As a mixed-race older female (white, Asian, Middle Eastern; 60’s), she had immigrated to Europe previously and had lived there for part of her life. She had an opportunity to visit a friend in Birmingham, AL, about a year ago, where she was able to stay for a full month and explore the area. One of her deepest impressions was of the presence of Confederate monuments ‘everywhere.’ She has only a basic history of America and slavery which she learned in her native country — that America is a country of ‘equality,’ that its black stain is slavery, and that slavery was made illegal years ago.

She noticed an immediate conflict in her travels, expressing the basic hypocrisy of these symbols. She had received a brief booklet about Confederate symbols and was thus able to identify them. She saw them everywhere — statues, names of schools/streets/bridges, plaques bragging about the soldiers’ successes during the war. M. was also surprised at the ease with which people seemed to walk past these monuments without flinching. She called them ‘hypnotized,’ and expressed that she thought the entire context bizarre. It seemed hypocritical that a country which claims equality and claims that they are anti-slavery to have the very symbols of slavery and its maintenance advertised chock-a-block, plus people operating on the streets as if they did not notice. She described it as dystopian.

This experience was the first time she noticed the essential hypocrisy at the core of America’s ‘equality’ and ‘merit.’

Even though M. seems unable to perceive these monuments in context, she has obviously stumbled on a very important feature: the way the citizens absorb these symbols: they have been normalized. As she notes, these symbols are ‘everywhere’ to somebody who knows America in theory more than in practice — like many immigrants — and the hypocrisy is immediately apparent.

The establishment of Confederate symbols started soon after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, prompting the question: why would a country need to praise the very soldiers who not only supported an institution which rendered other people inhuman property but also LOST? The French philosopher Michel Foucault developed a theory of punishment which can be applied to the understanding of Confederate symbols: he elaborated the idea of a prison system called a panopticon, invented by Jeremy Bentham, which would exert psychological social control. Bentham, a British utilitarian philosopher of the 18th century, argued that this system would decrease the amount of physical punishment required to control prisoners by exerting psychological control over their minds: a sort of brainwashing.

The ‘Panopticon’ was conceived by Bentham as a round structure in which a central tower, where the prison guards stand, allows continuous monitoring of prisoners, who are continuously exposed to the wardens. Because the prisoners eventually internalize a sense of subordination through the feeling that they are constantly being watched, the wardens are relieved of the pressure of reminding the prisoners that they are captive.

Foucault elaborated the concept of the ‘Panopticon’ in his book Discipline and Punish, illustrating the way in which visual symbols and implication of power and dominance eventually work :

“[T]he power exercised on the body is conceived not as a property, but as a strategy that its effects of domination are attributed to….dispositions, maneouvres (sic), tactics, techniques… a network of relations…one should take as its model a perpetual battle…[as the result of] the overall effect of the [dominant class’] strategic positions.” (p 26)

From this standpoint, Confederate monuments are a toxic form of panopticon: they are used to control a population, African-Americans, when the de jure process no longer works (that is, slavery is made illegal.) Thus, the panopticon comprises all de facto racism. And it still exists in forms which are overt. Since the official social contract — through eliminating slavery — no longer allows the explicit control of black/African American bodies through whipping, raping, selling, and a long list of other capital crimes — it now replaces that explicit control with implicit psychological control.

The fact that the symbols appeared just after the 13th Amendment fortifies this point of view, and the fact that they still exist points to an onerous inevitability: the ‘merit’ which America claims as its central tenet is actually ‘whiteness.’ Confederate statues and such are meant to maintain white supremacy while pretending that ‘merit’ has created the vastly unequal system of distribution between white and black in America.

I find it interesting that a nonblack, nonwhite person of color (NBPOC) who has had minimal education about the TransAtlantic Slave Trade and has always heard that ‘America is the land of equality’ immediately perceives a vast disparity between this latter statement and reality. Within a few weeks of observation, she understands the fundamental hypocrisy which is used to control black people AND she understands that, at some level, many people don’t seem to see it, as if they’ve been ‘hypnotized.’

As an immigrant, her view is a (somewhat) clean eye: she has not been subject to the constant white supremacist anti-black messaging in the US, and to her it is immediately apparent that something is VERY WRONG, that African-Americans are being subjected to unfair treatment as a result of the panopticon and the visual reminders of the Confederacy.

As if this isn’t enough evidence of the persistent power of white supremacy — and of a white majority which refuses, in the collective, to eliminate these wholesale — there is ample evidence that visual prompts are extremely effective in altering thought processes. For example, the doll studies which were first reported in the 1940’s by Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark showed not only that white children prefer white dolls but that black children prefer them as well, indicating the power of constant visual reminders of inferiority/superiority and the way in which white people are falsely elevated at the expense of black ones. These tests have been replicated again and again, including in a 2010 CNN special in which Soledad O’Brien elaborated the persistence of this mechanism through personal interviews.

I imagine that when African-Americans walk around in these cities, they must feel a true assault at some level if ‘M.,’ who is not of African descent and was not raised in the US, perceives it immediately. These assaults are pervasive and penetrated: each visual cue is a slap in the face, a fist to the voice box, a kick in the spleen. Each one. I wonder what it must be like to be an African-American child in Alabama — say, a black male, walking to school — already at risk for being shot just for breathing air in a country his ancestors built — and then walk into his school under a concrete banner with the name of a white man such as ‘Stonewall Jackson’ above him. It’s like being baptized by Lucifer every day.

A ‘clean eye’ which assumes equality immediately perceives this as massive hypocrisy. And we should: immigrants and first-generation Americans should understand immediately that the heavy foot of white supremacy rests first and foremost on the throats of African-Americans and others of African descent. Nonblack peoples of color owe African-Americans — as well as the tenets of basic human decency — at least as much as acknowledgement of this despicable and persistent abuse of psychological power.

All of us have a responsibility to protect children and alter their potential negative perceptions of themselves; the persistent physical display of Confederate symbols bludgeons African-Americans every day. The fact that studies prove the very real deleterious effects to African-American children should, in and of itself, argue strongly for getting rid of these toxic panopticons. It is encouraging that organizations in partnership with various NAACP chapters have developed to address this issue. These may not be overtly physical shackles, but they are shackles nevertheless.

But there are larger moral implications: considerations of what may be the impact to a nation of people who may have become immune to such obvious statements of white supremacy and who, ultimately, have lost the moral integrity which results from basic empathy.

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She/Her: Distort lies until they amplify truth. CryBaby: As loud as necessary.

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