Symbols in the Public Mind

Robert E. Lee statue overlooking Lee Circle in New Orleans. Image courtesy of the Associated Press

Robert E. Lee statue overlooking Lee Circle in New Orleans. Image courtesy of the Associated Press


Don’t be fooled when people say, “why worry about it? It’s just a symbol. Symbols don’t meaning anything?”

Oh really? If that’s the case, then why did so many non New Orleanians weigh in on how important it was to keep the confederate statues right where they are, in the open air, reminding everyone who passes by them that these symbols are so meaningless that a group of somebodies at some point in the past invested in their creation and very public placement.

Of course they matter, which is why I am glad to learn of the Southern Baptists’ resolution to condemn the confederate flag. So if symbols matter, why aren’t they considered with more weight in our public discourse, with more attention in our collective civic work? Symbols carry meaning, and meaning carry ways of relating information about how to think of, view, consider the world around us.

Despite the political right complaining that such symbols don’t matter, they certainly work hard at creating their own brand of meaning through symbols. Usually the symbols come in the form of a catchy term or phrase. For example, Fox News loves using and promoting the term radical Islam (or its variant, radical islamic terrorist) when covering mass killings perpetrated by people more or less associated with the islamic faith. The terms carry meaning with them, which communicates to the general public that a) terror has come from the Middle East to your doorstep, and b) this terror is created by a particular religious group, therefore c) be afraid of these people who want to bring terror to you. The symbol moves from the phrase to any brown looking person with a beard who may or may not be planning to kill all Americans. But it’s just a symbol, right, it doesn’t mean anything?

I don’t know about you, but we need to find a way to engage in collective civic (public) work that challenges these symbols. What the Southern Baptists just did yesterday is one way. President Obama’s challenge to the term radical islamic terrorism yesterday is another way. But sandwiched between these headline making efforts is us, you and me, in our everyday lives. Can’t we do something? Shouldn’t we be doing something other than just pressing a like button on Facebook?

The answer is yes, to both. Many of the demeaning, destructive, and divisive symbols afloat in the public sphere come from intentional creation by someone, or some group, who encouraged a particular perspective and fought hard to make it happen. We can undo this, but only through collective efforts.

For example, one of the most debilitating symbols that I wish to undo is the concept of race. It is both a private and public symbol, but I am interested in its public life.

Whenever I can I remind people, often in public meetings, that there are no true “races” and that the fact that we continue to call ourselves of some race or other only continues to maintain the powerful meaning behind the idea. The symbol is the word. The word carries meaning. The meaning was intentionally created by people. The people who created it were in power. These people in power happened to be white skinned. They colonized red, brown, and black-skinned people and claimed them inferior races. We haven’t looked back since, but we need to do it now.

History and science tell us that we are no different in our abilities because of the color of our skin or the texture of our hair. Our blood is red all around, our DNA is the same. So why does this public symbol persist? We can change this, but only if the everyday conversations take root. Once they do, these conversations can become textbooks, laws, practices, and before we know it we are no longer considering wether or not someone can do the job because of his or her race.


  1. Lindsey Haley says:

    Great meaningful argument, never heard it put this way. I agree. We have to start somewhere.

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