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America's original sin: Floyd death prompts historical soul-searching

Confederate monuments are coming down and statues of Christopher Columbus are being toppled as Americans grapple with the ghosts of the country's racial history in the wake of George Floyd's death.

A decapitated statue of Christopher Columbus in Boston, Massachusetts

"It seems like maybe we've hit a tipping point in the retelling of the narrative of who we are as an American people," said David Farber, a history professor at the University of Kansas.

"We're seeing tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of Americans wrestling with fundamental questions of what do we do with the unsavory -- and, let's be frank, even immoral -- aspects of our past."

The May 25 killing of Floyd, an African American, by a white police officer in Minneapolis has ignited mass protests for racial justice and police reform across the United States.

But the death of the 46-year-old has also triggered a national soul-searching of the country's checkered past.

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Demonstrators in several US cities have targeted monuments to generals and politicians of the pro-slavery Civil War South, pulling down a statue in Richmond, for example, of Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president during the 1861-1865 conflict.

"The symbols of the Confederacy are, I think, the most polarizing of these memorials. But it extends all over the United States," Farber said.

"In New York it's statues to Columbus. In New Mexico, there's a statue of a conquistador who's a genocidal figure in the eyes of the Pueblo Indian people.

"There's high schools all over the United States named for John Calhoun," a former vice president who was an avowed proponent of slavery.

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Farber noted that the debate over Confederate memorials has been going on for years and civil rights marchers of the 1950s and 1960s decried the fact that they were "walking down streets named after avowed racists and white supremacists."

The efforts to remove Confederate monuments gathered momentum after a white supremacist shot dead nine African Americans at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.

"The pace of it is now increasing because of public demand and public outcry," said Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University.

"What I think we're seeing is a reexamination of lots of our assumptions and a challenging of various forms of history as it affects African Americans," Gillespie said.

"This is a moment where the focus is on anti-black racism but it is not excluding other forms of racial oppression," she said.

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Laura Edwards, a Duke University history professor, said "it's sinking in to people that these symbols have political meaning and are problematic in ways they had not fully appreciated.

"It's less easy to call this heritage, for instance," Edwards said in a reference to arguments often used by opponents of removing Confederate symbols who claim it is erasing a proud Southern history.

Edwards said she was "blown away" when the NASCAR race car franchise banned the display of the Confederate flag at its events.

"Amongst all the sports it was the one that embraced what they imagined to be white Southern heritage," she said.

"Symbols associated with white supremacy and the Confederacy had been part of their brand."

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The toppling of Confederate statues and those of Columbus are "very much related," Edwards said, in that both embody the "violent colonization of the United States."

"The first part was Europeans coming and making claims to a place that belonged to indigenous people and then engaging in genocide to wipe them away."

That was followed by the importation of slaves from Africa -- what Alan Kraut, a history professor at American University, called "the original sin that we've never been able to get beyond."

"What we're seeing now is a revision of history in response to a political moment," Kraut said, although "this reassessment has been going on for a while."

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"Statues were already being discussed and removed," he added. "George Floyd's death served as a catalyst to do it dramatically and to do it quickly."

Steven White, an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University, said people are "rethinking racism in American history more broadly."

"You're kind of seeing this broader reckoning," White said.

"I think for a growing number of white Americans you are seeing more attention paid to the longer-term reasons that racial inequality persists in America," he said.

"I guess the question is whether these changes in public opinion will last," White said. "Is this the beginning of a really substantial shift?"

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