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Power Structures: White Columns, White Marble, White Supremacy

As I write these words on the fire escape of my Manhattan apartment, in early September, 2020, the flashing lights of a cop car blink in my peripheral vision. This is a parked cop car — it has been flashing its lights in place, day and night, for about a month and a half, now.

In the midst of the pandemic, this cop car is there to protect a statue of a white man who, quite frankly, even I did not know the story of until the cops surrounded the statue with crash barriers and started hanging out there. They said they’d done this because protestors were threatening to take the statue down.

In a city whose budgetary strain from the coronavirus threatens the safety of children in schools, and cuts countless essential programs for those who are hardest hit by the virus, we must interrogate the importance that the police are placing on defending statues of generic 19th-century white men. Six weeks and counting of 1–2 vehicles and 2–4 officers at all times — doubtless the expense of guarding the statue is several times the cost of replacing the statue, should it be destroyed by these mysteriously invisible “protestors.” This is not a matter of misplaced priorities: they know why they’re doing this.

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New York’s Finest protecting George Washington from the Queer Liberation March, June 28, 2020 (the pedestal was previously tagged FUCK 12 / SINCE / 1492)

The statue outside of my window is not alone in attracting a new, 24/7 police detail this summer. By the middle of June, two of the city’s most controversial public monuments — that of Christopher Columbus in Columbus Circle, and of Theodore Roosevelt in front of the American Museum of Natural History — were blocked off completely to pedestrian access, and guarded by multiple police vehicles and corresponding numbers of officers. Elsewhere, the city’s other statues of Columbus (there are five total in New York City), several statues of George Washington — and even statues of literary figures — have found themselves under police guard.

Altogether, the city has spent at least a couple million dollars on this, just in the season of protest following George Floyd’s murder. And that investment has won New York City the dubious honor of being one of the only major US cities that has not lost a statue to the uprisings.

The fault borne by these monochrome statues of centuries-dead white men for the state-sanctioned murder of Black men & women is in some ways more intuitive than explicit — which allows politicians, scholars, and commentators on the right to claim ignorance as to what offenses these statues may have caused, and lump them generally among the property whose defense provides the ultimate justification for ever-expanding police budgets. But protesters around the country — and beyond — have clearly understood this link, and the necessity of attacking these symbols of white supremacy.

The history of public monuments in the United States is a long and oppressive one. But a distinctly new chapter has opened up in recent years. The overt and very explicit defense of statues on the part of white nationalists and affiliated groups (including law enforcement — the NYPD’s ranks are notoriously filled with members of various white nationalist groups) has not happened in a vacuum. Instead, it is the latest move in a 150+ year dance between white supremacists and those who oppose them (taking many forms and many names over the years), which moved from curiosity to tragedy in the eyes of national audiences in August of 2017.

One of the greatest fears that many BIPOC had at the election of Donald Trump was that his overt racism would encourage and embolden white supremacist groups. And, of course, it did, but in a somewhat different form than we’d seen before. After decades underground, the white nationalists we saw emerging packaged their racism in a slightly more palatable way. Adopting the much less offensive seeming term the “alt-right,” these groups have generally been careful to reject labels that they claim to agree are bad — labels like fascist, Nazi, and white supremacist. Instead, they claim to be pro-white, or to simply be protecting their heritage.

This focus on heritage is reflected in the site they choose to make their grand entrance to the world stage: Charlottesville, Virginia.

The city’s statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee was the subject of debate, study, and numerous votes on the part of the Charlottesville City Council, initiated by Black Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy’s call for it to be removed. By April 2017, the City Council had voted to remove the statue, and to hold a contest to choose a new name for the park it stood in, which was then called “Lee Park.”

But that’s not why they held the Unite the Right rally there in August 2017.

The Charlottesville City Council’s move was hardly unique. In the previous couple of years, city and state governments, as well as universities across the country, had been taking a close look at the ways in which slaveowners and supporters of the institution of slavery are honored in public space, and had taken steps to remove confederate flags, statues, and other symbols, and change the names of streets and buildings. Sometimes these removals were ordered by an activist mayor, as famously was the case in New Orleans; at other times, people resorted to removing the statues themselves, as at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

In most places, resistance to these actions has largely stayed online, in the forums frequented by the alt-right. But in May, August, and October of 2017, young white men carrying lit torches marched through the streets of Charlottesville to the statue. These demonstrations were organized and led by Richard Spencer — the Alt-Right leader who was famously punched on camera while speaking to a reporter on Inauguration Day.

Inauguration Day, Washington DC, January 20, 2017

Spencer’s procession in August took place the night before the now famous “Unite the Right” rally on August 12, 2017. The organizer of that rally, Jason Kessler, explained that

the first and foremost reason that we’re having this rally, is for that park and for that statue. It’s about white genocide. It’s about the replacement of our people, culturally and ethnically […] And that statue is the focal point of everything.

That a statue could be the focus point for a massive, deadly clash between white nationalists and anti-fascist counter-protestors highlights the true power of public monuments — and yet, those with the platform to explain this power continued to look away. In the weeks, months, and years following the event, liberal commentators rehashed tired old now-familiar scripts in which they reject the idea that the defense of Confederate flags and monuments is about heritage. Similarly, the National Council on Public History — a professional association of academic and professional public historians in the US — issued a statement on Charlottesville which contains the following sentence:

As professional public historians, we have studied how notions of heritage are distorted to support racism, white supremacy, antisemitism, and white nationalism.

This statement reflects the consensus that “heritage” itself is not a hateful thing — a claim that fits perfectly into current white nationalist strategies of agreeing to be against the thing we all agree is bad (in this case, hate). Instead, for years they have been claiming to uphold the Confederate flag as a symbol of “heritage, not hate” — which once again trended on twitter as Confederate statues began to fall in the United States this summer.

And they’re not alone: the prevailing concept of heritage employed by those who opposed reverence for the Confederacy affirms this idea that heritage is not itself about hate — that it only becomes that when it is distorted. But is this necessarily the case?

In his book The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, David Lowenthal describes heritage as that which “starts with what individuals inherit and bequeath.” This highlights its close relationship between “heritage” and the English word “inheritance,” and, in turn, invokes the investment of western capitalist culture in the passage of property from a presumptively male property holder to his (legitimate) lineal descendants. Similarly, the romance language terms for “heritage” — “patrimonio” in Spanish — directly invoke the property of the father. And another term that commonly appears both in the contexts of wills and of heritage is “legacy.” In other words: our model of “heritage” — whether familial, national, or world — is about descent-based ownership of a particular slice of the past.

The Western concept of heritage is thus inherently one of possession. In order for one person to own something, they must have rights to it that others do not have. When that heritage is materialized in public space, it also conveys a sense of ownership rights over that public space. Indeed, the materialization of white heritage has been one of the primary mechanisms of upholding white supremacy since the founding era of the United States. This was a well-established practice by the time that segregationists erected dozens of Confederate statues in the 1920s — which is when Charlottesville’s statue of Robert E. Lee was placed on a pedestal to assert white authority in a primarily Black neighborhood.

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Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, dedicated in 1924

So, whenever they mobilize to protect the symbols of whiteness in public space, the Alt-Right is not “distorting” heritage — they are in fact protecting it. And that is not inherently a good thing. They know that removing statues of Confederate generals does more than remove tacit support for slavery and white supremacy. It also removes a potent visual and physical enforcer of the idea that America is historically a country of white people; and that white people thus have more rights to power over the cities in which these monuments stand.

They know it…and, to be honest, I think that “we” do, too, though we hesitate to say it. In part because of the truly staggering implications of this realization: what it means, not only for statues but for so many other elements of the built environment of this settler nation. Because statues do not act alone in asserting whiteness in the built environment.

This hesitation was evident in the published responses to a mostly-forgotten pre-pandemic mini-scandal: a leaked draft of an Executive Order called “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” which as of now Trump still has not signed. This Executive Order would have made it a requirement that future Federal buildings be built using the neoclassical styles derived from the architecture of Ancient Greece and Rome. The key markers of this style of architecture include white columns on the front of buildings, sometimes approached by a number of steps; and topped by a triangular pediment — all white, as well, of course. Most of the iconic government buildings in this country have these features — and while they fell out of favor starting in the 1960s, this is what the reference to “again” is about in the title of the Executive Order.

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The US Supreme Court building is a typical example of the neoclassical style used in the United States.

Contrary to most of the commentary in January & February 2020, this is not a matter of an unsophisticated president failing to appreciate modernist architecture; or of a misguided attempt to reverse the multiculturalism of recent architectural trends. Instead, this move was actually far more sophisticated, and more historically and culturally literate, than the mainly-white commentators on the left were able (or willing) to see.

Indeed, this Draft Executive Order was an almost-official expression of the success of the deadly “Unite the Right” march at Charlottesville. Far more powerful than his August 2017 tweets that condemned “both sides,” and challenged the desire to remove Confederate statues, the Trump administration was exploring what it would look like to revert to an explicitly white supremacist approach to imposing the white power of the Federal Government in public space.

The connection to Charlottesville becomes even clearer when we recognize that the city was not chosen for the “Unite the Right” rally because of the threat to its statue of Robert E. Lee; or for its abundant classical architecture — all of these existed in any number of other towns and cities. The reason that Spencer called his followers to this small college town in rural Virginia — a place that most people in the country had never even heard of before the fatal day of August 12, 2017 — brings together Trump’s White House’s commitment to a Classical style for federal buildings with the openly white supremacist agendas of many of his advisers: the originator of the idea that Classical architectural styles were the most appropriate for the United States is the same person who many regard as the founder of American racial science and of American white supremacy — and the same person who made Charlottesville into a college town. In other words, coming to Charlottesville amounted to a pilgrimage for white nationalists throughout the country. And that’s why, the night before the Unite The Right rally, a large group of young white men, showing their angry faces proudly to the world, carrying lit torches and shouting “You Will Not Replace Us,” marched through the University of Virginia’s campus to gather at the statue of the architect of its classical buildings: Thomas Jefferson.

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Torch-lit Alt-Right procession gathers at Charlottesville’s statue of Thomas Jefferson, August 11, 2017

Classicizing architecture in the United States — along with neoclassical statues of white men — serves as a permanent, physical dog whistle, one that avowed white supremacists readily recognize as such, and which was part of why they gathered at Charlottesville in August 2017 in the ways that they did.

The idea of what we now refer to as “Western Civilization” and “Classical antiquity” as being the heritage of white Americans is something that can be traced to the Revolutionary era. Although training in Greek and Latin had already been central to the education of the children of the wealthy in the New World, as it had been in Europe, it was only in the last decades of the 18th century that white Americans began to obsessively overlay the Greek and Roman world onto their own. And a central figure in this practice was, in fact, none other than Thomas Jefferson — the founding father not only of the United States but also of Charlottesville’s University of Virginia, who lived just outside of town at his slave plantation, Monticello. Today, as with the homes of many enslavers — including those who were also presidents — Monticello is now a popular tourist site.

Jefferson and others established the pervasive presence of the classical world in the early United States as an important part of the creation of a white national identity. As civilizations that had come and gone thousands of years previously, Greece and Rome were recruited to serve as the historical origin point from which the United States developed, granting the nation a narrative of stability that reached back far before 1776.

The national identity that classical antiquity supported was, fundamentally, a racially exclusive one. Although the concept of race — and the racial category of whiteness — had only emerged in the previous century, white Americans readily retrojected the category back onto ancient Greece and Rome, claiming the great thinkers and leaders of antiquity as their white racial ancestors.

Like a lot of ideas that organize society, racial classicism was rarely spelled out explicitly in words. But of the few places this assumption is explicitly articulated is in Jefferson’s book Notes on the State of Virginia. In one section of the book, the man who wrote that “all men are created equal,” while simultaneously enslaving hundreds of people, employed his considerable intellect to justify these contradictions. In the course of arguing that Roman slavery was even harsher than the American version that he himself practiced, Jefferson used the whiteness of Roman slaves who were Greek as proof of the inherent difference between white and Black people. He wrote:

…among the Romans, their slaves were often their rarest artists. They excelled too in science, insomuch as to be usually employed as tutors to their master’s children. Epictetus, Terence, and Phaedrus, were slaves. But they were of the race of whites. It is not [Black peoples’] condition [of enslavement] then, but nature, which has produced the distinction [between white and Black intelligence and achievement].

By invoking classical slavery, Jefferson reinforced the status of the Greco-Roman past as America’s past, establishing ancient European precedents for his new nation. He describes the enslaved Greeks, the philosopher Epictetus, playwright Terence, and writer of fables, Phaedrus, as white — almost in passing, as if he knows his white readership in the US and in Europe will find this uncontroversial. He employs their success as evidence both that white excellence has remained stable across millennia; and to show that even were white people subjected to the same treatment that he subjects the hundreds of Black people he personally enslaved, the brilliance of the white race would still shine through.

Ancient Greece and Rome offered the perfect heritage for white Americans: they affirmed the ancient nobility and capacity for rule of the white race, while also offering a model of righteous empire and civilized slaveownership. By establishing the Greco-Roman world as the ancestor of the United States, the exclusion of Black people from the American present was thus supported by their exclusion from the American past.

The founders of the United States took every opportunity to highlight what they claimed as their ancient racial heritage — dubbing their leader George Washington “Cincinnatus” — after the Roman farmer-turned-soldier who refused the invitation to become a dictator; naming their “Senate” after the governing body of ancient Rome; and employing classical pseudonyms in their public writing and private correspondence.

And they also set their heritage claims in stone — a practice initiated, by the same Founding Father who most explicitly racialized the Greeks and Romans as the ancestors of the white men creating this new nation.

The new nation needed new government buildings, including to serve as the seat of government for the new State of Virginia, which rejected the colonial capital of Williamsburg in favor of Richmond. Jefferson chose not to follow the style of the previous capitol — constructed only a few decades previously.

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Colonial capitol of Virginia, Williamsburg

Instead, he recruited classical antiquity as the imagined past for his new nation by modeling the new capitol building for the State of Virginia on the Roman temple in Nimes, which he had visited during his time as ambassador to France in the 1780s.

This style — and specifically the use of white columns with a triangular pediment — was later adopted in the building of the United States Capitol and White House in Washington DC, in direct accordance with Jefferson’s position that it was the only appropriate style for the government buildings of the new nation.

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United States Capitol, East Front, 1846
(as it appeared between 1829–1856)

This architectural style, inspired by the temples of the Greeks and Romans, soon expanded across the new nation, marking sites of power such as churches, courthouses, and banks. The style’s ubiquity is such that every American lives within a town or two of some white columns, or at least a triangular pediment.

In addition to marking communal sites of authority, white columns and pediments came to characterize the homes of the wealthiest men in the new country: the owners of slave plantations in the South.

This development coincides directly with the creation of the new nation. Before the Revolutionary era, some plantation mansions in the British North American colonies did contain classical elements. However, in accordance with the Georgian style they borrowed from Europe, they were comparatively subdued, as in this example from Maryland:

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Wye House Plantation, Maryland, mid-18th century

But starting just when the Constitution was ratified, and George Washington became the first president, a number of existing slave plantation mansions were remodeled to add monumental porticoes, with tall, white columns topped by a triangular pediment — as happened here at Hampton in South Carolina:

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Hampton, Santee, South Carolina, Portico added c. 1790

These new facades were facades in more than one sense — while they imitated stone, they were simply wood and brick, covered with white plaster or painted to look like marble. This style became ubiquitous in the area of the Old Southwest, in territories where settlers ejected indigenous people in order to grow cotton and sugar. In staking their claim to this newly stolen land, one of the first tasks that white slaveowners demanded of the Black people who they enslaved was to build them mansions that expressed their (superior) racial heritage.

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Gaineswood, Alabama, 1850s

The urgency of the task of remaking the land in the image of their white ancestors reflected its symbolic importance. Architecture, like all material things, is always a physical remainder and reminder of human action in the past. Put another way, it is one of the means through which the living can impact those who will live on after their death: a bridge that can allow people in the future to cross a river; a sturdy mansion in the center of town, that continues to symbolize power long after your death. Because a building that exists “now” was built “before,” it contributes to a fundamentally historical understanding of a given landscape. The neoclassical buildings planted on the American landscape represented what Eleni Bastéa calls an

an architectural heritage [which,] woven into our lives through personal and collective memory, becomes a testimony to the past — a past, however, that reflects current theories of history and culture.

The idea of inheritance that is contained within Bastéa’s term “architectural heritage” is critical here. By the time of the Civil War, the consistent use of white-columned architecture throughout the country, as an emblem of white settler colonialism, had effectively constructed an “architectural heritage.”

The classically educated ruling class readily understood the Greco-Roman origins of these architectural elements, and identified personally as heirs to the legacy of classical antiquity. The classicizing architecture of the plantation South — with its profusion of white columns, pediments, and faux-marble walls — thus came to represent a concrete metaphor for group identity. As they moved through the different parts of their worlds, neoclassical architecture offered a recurring physical cue that served as a mnemonic for the racial links that white men repeatedly asserted between themselves and ancient Greeks and Romans. Furthermore, by distributing these architectural features on the colonized land of their new nation, they seeded the landscape with the signs of the European past — of European heritage — quite literally marking the territory of whiteness.

The symbolic importance of these buildings also helps explain why they were built at all. The owners of the grandest plantation mansions generally maintained primary residences in nearby cities, and their presence was rarely (if ever) actually required to continue the operation of the plantation. Thus, the choice to expend massive amounts of capital and slave labor that might otherwise have been put to agricultural use reflects their awareness of the symbolic power of these buildings — a symbolic power that included their potency as markers of white heritage.

Buildings and landscapes outlive their human creators, often by many generations, carrying with them physical reminders of past events and past ideologies. Although some slave plantation mansions were destroyed during the Civil War, many were preserved and converted into popular museums.

Just pause for a moment to think about all of the ideologies embedded in these structures.

These plantation museums overwhelmingly appeal to white visitors by romanticizing the experience of living in the mansions, and focusing on the beauty and grandeur of the architecture and the furnishings. Discussions of slavery are an afterthought — rarely integrated into the guided tours of the mansion itself, and often relegated to outbuildings that visitors can choose to skip. The presumptively white visitors are encouraged to imagine themselves in the elegant shoes of the plantation owners, linking modern white American identity to that of southern slaveowners. Indeed, throughout the South, slave plantations are also sought-after venues for weddings.

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McLeod Plantation, James Island, South Carolina, built 1851

This image is from McLeod Plantation in James Island, South Carolina, a plantation mansion built in 1851 — and it is far from unique. At the time of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, McLeod Plantation actively advertised their facility as a site for weddings, alongside information on historical tours.

The white couples who choose these mansions as venues for their weddings may understand their own choice as grounded in the aesthetic appeal and “charm” of the houses, but that very appeal itself is one that is directly tied to white heritage — and hence to white supremacy. Within the highly racialized context of the United States, classical architecture is not only associated with power but specifically with white power.

But even when the history of slavery that was the very reason for the construction of these landscapes is not explicitly acknowledge by the white families who celebrate in them today, that does not render it absent. Rather, such celebrations are themselves reinscriptions and reassertions of the same oppression of white supremacy, perpetrated on plantations years ago. As wealthy white people celebrate the union of two white families — and implied generational preservation of the wealth of — they are served by low-wage Black workers — at some sites, even, in dressed “period” costume.

This meaning of the plantation landscape as a symbol of white racial superiority was readily evident to Dylann Roof, the young white man who murdered nine Black people in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015. On the website where he posted his manifesto explaining his motivations for the shooting, Roof also included images of himself at various sites of white heritage. McLeod is one of three plantations he included in his pilgrimage tour.

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Dylann Roof at McLeod Plantation

This neoclassical plantation — less than a 15 minute drive today from the historic Mother Emanuele AME Church where he carried out the massacre that he hoped would spark a race war — was a symbol of the white racial heritage that he claimed and was inspired by. The white columns and temple-like pediment of the mansion expressed the domination of Roof’s European heritage over the landscape of the slave plantation, and over the lives of the people of African descent who were enslaved there. He saw quite clearly the meaning that white people holding weddings at McLeod may claim to be oblivious to. And Roof is by no means alone in reading — accurately — the plantation landscape as a powerful symbol of white racial superiority.

The white men who built these mansions also spread the stylistic marker of their racial superiority throughout the country, where we recognize it today as the standard style employed for locations of power, such as court houses, banks, museums, and of course government buildings throughout Washington, DC. As such, the defunct Draft Executive Order to revert to classical architecture would actually have been one of the more “historically accurate” (for lack of a better term) actions of the Trump administration.

Two years after the massacre in Charleston, the South had mostly agreed to finally recognize that the Confederate Flag in which Dylann Roof draped himself was a symbol of hate; but had not even started the conversation about historic sites like McLeod Plantation as symbols of hate. And so it is hardly surprising that commentators collectively looked away from the ways in which historical monuments to white supremacy were central to the white nationalist demonstrations in Charlottesville.

In Charlottesville, instead of posing in front of a plantation mansion, angry young white men marched around and through the classicizing buildings of the University of Virginia’s campus — which were designed by the university’s creator, Thomas Jefferson.

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White Supremacist procession on August 11, 2017, in front of the University of Virginia’s Rotunda, designed by Thomas Jefferson

The building in the background of this disturbing photo is based on the ancient temple of the Pantheon in Rome — designed by Jefferson, and built by the people he enslaved. By including the University of Virginia — itself a monument to white learning on the backs of Black labor — on the route of his torchlit protest procession, Richard Spencer highlighted the very real dominance of his white heritage within the city that held the statue he sought to protect. He summoned the power of all of these white columns erected by the enslaved Black men owned by Thomas Jefferson, charging up his group, solidifying their ownership of that place, in preparation for their battle to defend one of their favorite symbols: Robert E. Lee.

One of the angry young white men who marched at Charlottesville has exploited another rich vein of American white heritage symbolism. Nathan Damigo is best known for being captured on video punching an antifacist protestor in the face at the University of California, Berkeley a few months earlier, in April 2017. He is also the founder of a group called Identity Evropa — spelled with a v in place of the u in order to signal their connection to ancient Rome, in whose alphabet u was written as v. He founded this organization in 2016 and they initially focused their energies largely on recruiting white men on college campuses.

One tool they used was a poster campaign, which featured closeups on the faces of classical and neoclassical sculptures — carved by modern European and American artists in tribute to what they considered their ancestral style — and slogans such as “protect your heritage” and “the future belongs to us.”

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University of Chicago, February 2017

Like Dylann Roof’s photographs, Identity Evropa’s posters capitalized on the long-standing white supremacist subtext of American engagement with the iconography of white heritage — here, in the form of classical and neoclassical sculptures.

One of the sculptures in their poster campaign has a long history of being used to represent the perfection of whiteness, in contrast to supposedly inferior races. The Apollo Belvedere — a 2nd century CE Roman adaptation of a 4th Century BCE Greek sculpture — was also known in the early US as the Pythian Apollo.

When plaster casts of classical sculpture were first imported to the United States, in the first decades after the country was established, the Apollo Belvedere quickly became the sculpture that needed to be in every collection. Bearing features attributed to the white race — including literally white skin, as well as nose-, mouth-, and head-shapes that were considered to be characteristically white — it was singled out by both European and American racial theorists to represent the standard of perfect human beauty — and, by implication, of perfect intellectual ability and moral character.

The Apollo and other classical sculptures became the cornerstone of artistic training in the new United States, and markers of status for wealthy white Americans. The Grand Tour, a heritage ritual engaged in by many young white Americans of means, took them to parts of Europe where they could see the originals of the statues. They regularly brought copies of the Apollo Belvedere, as well as of other Greco-Roman statues home with them after their tours. Back in the young nation of the United States, they placed these sculptures them in their homes and gardens as cultural status symbols and constant reminders of their white classical heritage.

Copies of the Apollo were also displayed more publicly, in the galleries of early art academies, where they supported the goals of these organizations to “rais[e] the character of their countrymen, by increasing their knowledge and taste” (in the words of the founders of New York’s American Academy of Fine Arts, in 1803). In these contexts, the casts simultaneously asserted the whiteness of the Greeks and Romans, as well as the perfection of whiteness, to the artists who carefully studied its shape, as well as to a broader public, who saw exhibitions of classical casts for a fee of 25 cents.

The significance of classical sculptures was defined ever more precisely by the developing field of American racial science. White men, working within the emerging discipline of professional medicine, created arguments to support the supposed physical, mental, and emotional inferiority of Black people — and the corresponding superiority of the white race. By measuring, examining, and dissecting the bodies of individuals of all backgrounds, they “discovered” subtle markers that distinguished the Black race from the white race. As Franny Nudelman puts it, their arguments

established inequality as a fact of nature, divinely sanctioned and, by definition, beyond the reach of political remedy.

Racial science thus supported the emerging southern apologists’ argument that slavery was not only acceptable, but actually good for Black people; and also affirmed the necessity of social boundaries between free Black and white Americans in the North and the urban South.

American racial scientists did not come up with these ideas on their own — even if they pursued and refined them with special enthusiasm. Ever since classical sculptures were rediscovered during the Renaissance, the “perfection” of their forms was lauded by European scholars and artists, and they came to represent the pinnacle of human achievement and beauty. The sculptures were also central to the work of late-eighteenth-century European scientists in articulating their new theories about the different types of mankind encountered and subjugated through European colonialism. The works of Johann Lavater, Johann Blumenbach, Pieter Camper, and Georges Cuvier were particularly influential in laying the groundwork for American racial science. Although each scientist employed different tools, they all focused on specific features of the body, which they used to categorize humans into distinct races, and explained variations in skin color, hair type, bone shape, and facial features as illustrations of the relative fitness of the races. While there were as many theories as to the number of races as there were racial scientists, Blumenbach’s division into five races — Caucasian, Mongolian, Malayan, Negroid, and American — ultimately became the most influential — and is the source of our modern use of “Caucasian” to mean “white.”

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“Facial Goniometer” for measuring facial angle, in Samuel George Morton’s 1939 book, Crania Americana

One of the tools that had the largest impact in the 19th century American racial science was the facial angle measurement. This was first developed by Dutch scholar Camper in 1770, who described it thus:

The basis on which the distinction of nations is founded may be displayed by two straight lines; one of which is to be drawn through the meatus auditorius to the base of the nose, the other touching the prominent centre of the forehead and falling thence on the most advancing part of the upper jaw bone, the head being viewed in profile.

According to Camper, African and Asian heads had a facial angle of 70 degrees, in contrast to the average 80 degree facial angle of Europeans. And in a fabulously circular argument, the way that he knew that a high facial angle is better was by measuring the facial angle of Greek sculptures:

On this difference of 10° in the face angle the superior beauty of the European depends; while the high character of sublime beauty which is so striking in some works of ancient statuary, as in the head of Apollo and in the Medusa of Sisocles, is given by an angle which amounts to 100°.

The chief concern in Camper’s work was to justify and understand the relationships between the European race to which he belonged, and the peoples it encountered through colonial ventures. But when these conversations were transferred to the United States, they took on a new meaning and a new urgency in a country in which interactions between Black and white people were everyday, intimate occurrences — onces that were fraught with tension over the inequality that separated them.

American scientists used measurements such as the facial angle, combined with other physical features, to create more-or-less standardized “types” for the different races. Although the precise terms in which they formulated this varied, the 1838 definitions of Dr. Samuel G. Morton of Philadelphia were fairly representative. Morton described “The Caucasian, or White Race” as:

Characterised by a naturally fair skin, susceptible of every tint: hair fine, long, and straight: the face is oval, and the features pre-emineutly [sic] regular and symmetrical. The skull is large, having its anterior portion broad and elevated, indicating the predominance of the intellectual over the animal faculties. The face is small in comparison with the head; the nasal bones are arched, and the teeth vertical. Facial angle — seventy to seventy-five degrees.

As this description shows, the shape of the skull was considered to be important, providing indications of the intellectual and moral character of the individual, in a simplified theory of phrenology. By contrast, Morton described “The Negro, or Black Race” as:

Characterised by a black skin, woolly hair, flat nose, and large lips; the face is prominent, and elongated at the mouth; the forehead is low and narrow, and the head itself is long, compressed laterally, and prominent at the occiput. The teeth are large and nearly vertical. Facial angle, 60 to 65°.

The features of skin color, hair texture, and the shapes of the nose, lips, and head, served rhetorically as the phenotypical markers of race, and showed up again and again in American descriptions of individuals both Black and white, in a wide variety of contexts. Racial science thus offered the security of a rational system of science that could be applied casually, at a glance, to a white or Black body, or proven more precisely through careful measurements, to confirm the racial hierarchies upon which American society was based.

But for all of this scientific precision, Mia Bay writes that, in practice,

[s]kin color was, in fact, the only distinction between races that white Americans could rely on to distinguish blacks from whites.

Thus, the visible whiteness of classical sculptures was of great significance to racial scientists. The appeal of these sculptures as exampla was enhanced by their origin in great ancient societies, and the direct and intimate relation that sculpture holds to the human body. This relationship granted sculptures, in the words of art historian Kirk Savage, “a unique scientific and documentary power” that helped ancient sculpture become “an authentic document of a normative white body, a ‘race’ of white men.”

The sculpture most commonly called upon to serve as this normative white body was the Apollo Belvedere, whose facial angle of 100 degrees Camper used as the standard for the most beautiful head. Americans saw the Apollo Belvedere as the pinnacle of white beauty, and, in turn, as Savage writes, as an illustration of “the relationship of physical beauty to intellect and culture.”

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Cast of the Apollo Belvedere,
Massachusetts General Hospital

As such the Apollo Belvedere actually became an important object of study in medical schools, where it served as the exemplar of the ideal human body — a body that was implicitly the exclusive property of white men, much like the field of medicine itself.

For instance, Dr. John Augustine Smith referred to the Apollo and other sculptures in an 1808 medical school lecture on anatomy, in which he sought to prove that white and Black people were different species. The lecture took for granted that Greco-Roman sculptures represented the same white race as himself and his students.

The presence of the phenotypical markers of whiteness, such as hair, lip, nose, and profile, sculptured out of literally white, unpainted marble, enabled nineteenth-century white American to read these sculptures as unambiguously “white,” and as representative of their racial heritage.

The link between classical (and neoclassical) sculpture and white race was so overwhelming that an anti-slavery author satirically warned sculptors in 1841 that

A black Apollo, whatever the symmetry of his proportions, the majesty of his attitude, or the divinity of his air, would meet with a great good fortune if it escaped mutilation, or at least defilement

and advised them to cover any dark statues with whitewash lest their artwork be destroyed. In reality, though, there were hardly any statues created in the US of Black people — before or after the Civil War — reflecting the degree to which racial sciences and white heritage claims combined, in Savage’s words, to make Black people “the embodiment of what was not classically sculptural.”

All of these associations were at play in the use of the Apollo Belvedere in the widely circulating and influential 1854 book Types of Mankind, by Alabama physician Josiah Nott and Egyptologist George Gliddon. The basis of Nott and Gliddon’s arguments was the theory of polygenesis, which divided humanity into multiple different species, with different origins. Although its publication predated Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by 5 years, the book went through over a dozen printings and remained in circulation for decades, offering an alternative to Darwin’s theory of evolution.

As part of their argument for the existence of distinct racial types, with origins as separate as those of different species of animals, Nott and Gliddon juxtaposed profile views of the “Apollo Belvedere,” a “Negro,” and a “Young Chimpanzee,” each accompanied by profile views of de-fleshed crania from each of the supposedly distinct species.

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Josiah Nott & George R. Gliddon,
Types of Mankind, 1855

The primary visual argument at work here is based on the facial angles seen in the silhouettes of the faces. Those of the Apollo Belvedere, and the “Greek” skull that accompanies it are nearly vertical, representing the ideal Caucasian face that has its forehead, nose, and chin on roughly the same line. And at the angle they are depicted, the “Creole Negro” skull’s profile is even “worse” than that of the “Young Chimpanzee.” The cultural associations between the beauty of the Apollo Belvedere and the intelligence that is the privilege of whiteness are further reinforced by the juxtaposition of the faces themselves. While America’s black population is represented by the face of a modern person, the slippage between the white head of the Greek sculpture, and the head of a modern white American, is such that one can stand in for the other. The whiteness of the marble face — extending even to his hair — firmly sets the Apollo — and the white man he stands in for — in a different category from the Black man and the monkey.

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This is the tradition of imagery — of heritage — that Identity Evropa drew on in their poster campaign. Without saying it in words, they are able to recruit the familiarity that Americans still have with classical and neoclassical sculpture as representative of “high art,” of European achievement, and of a glorious & exclusive white heritage. By zooming in on the faces of these sculptures, the posters encourage viewers to notice the phenotypical markers of whiteness that were so important to 19th century racial scientists. And, ultimately, they affirm the historical dominance of white people.

The practice of making commemorative sculptures of American individuals — employing the materials and techniques used by the Greeks and the Romans — is a long standing one.

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In the early 19th century, politicians were regularly portrayed actually in Greco-Roman attire of some kind, as in Horatio Greenough’s larger-than-life statue of George Washington in the pose of a Greek sculpture of the god Zeus. The statue was commissioned to stand in the center of the rotunda of the Capitol building but ended up being too heavy so was placed outside (and is now in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History).

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Andrew Jackson, by Hiram Powers

Much more frequently white men were shown as Roman senators, which is how Hiram Powers sculpted the image of President Andrew Jackson.

However, the profusion of commemorative statues of white men in public space dates to the period following the Civil War. In Kirk Savage’s book Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America , the war was commemorated by placing neoclassical statues of white men — representative of the common soldier of the Union and the Confederacy — in prominent locations in cities large and small.

These generic figures were supplemented by statues of generals and of the assassinated President Lincoln — but vanishingly few images of African Americans. Thus, at a time when people of color were first granted citizenship — and movements for women to be able to vote were gaining steam — the symbolic language of heritage was deployed frantically to inscribe the dominance of white men upon the landscape, by literally setting it in stone, and literally putting it on a pedestal.

Often the specific locations selected for statues reflected the urgency of their message of white male dominance even more explicitly. For example, in Charlottesville, the statue of Lee was placed just outside of the historically Black neighborhood of Vinegar Hill. Towering above the Black neighborhood on his horse, Lee’s body served as a visible reminder of white dominance and surveillance — intended to intimidate.

The statues targeted by protesters across the United States in the weeks and months following the public lynching of George Floyd by a white cop, are representations of white male bodies, sculpted within the tradition of Greek & Roman art. In these cases, however, the bodies do not represent an ancient ruler or god, but instead a specific American individuals (even though in some cases — such as Christopher Columbus — they never would have considered themselves to be American).

Whereas between 2015 and 2020, most of the focus on embattled statues focused on Confederate monuments in the South, it has now become clear that more was at stake than simply preserving the heroes of the pro-slavery cause. White defense of Confederate statues is grounded in a heritage pattern of marking American public spaces with white male bodies — a practice that is in no way unique to the South. Throughout the United States, the imagery of white heritage dominates. The overwhelming majority of statues are of white men, collectively advancing an argument that is impervious to the social movements of the past several decades: this nation was created by white men, and hence is most properly the property of white men. Similarly, neoclassical architecture that is synonymous with power, stability, and American history continues to appear not only in small town banks, courthouses, and churches, but also on television screens nightly as the symbols representing Congress and the presidency. All of these tools of heritage continue to do what they were initially designed to do: they reinforce the power of whiteness in the United States — and the country’s status as a white supremacist nation.

The patterns of this summer’s statue removals also points to the tenacity of this country’s white supremacy, which today operates along a spectrum from militia message boards to your living room: as with all other institutions in our society, the existence of the extreme and overt racism (of those who bring their guns to protect confederate statues) makes all the rest of the racism that does not support their removal — and the removal of other symbols of white supremacy — look tame.

Thus, it is very easy for mayors and police departments to insist that they stay in place, without having to resort to overtly racist arguments. This is because of the heritage pattern in which classical styles were first borrowed to mark this stolen land with the symbols of European antiquity, and later rendered unremovable by a cult of preservation — which again feels neutrally good, but is fundamentally white supremacist. This heritage pattern is almost universally endorsed by those with governmental and cultural authority: it’s great to have statues of great men, it’s only an issue if the man being put on a pedestal is bad. Even the self-proclaimed radical mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Ras Baraka, while removing a statue of Columbus, framed him as an unworthy man whose statue will be replaced by one of Harriet Tubman — ignoring the park’s other statues of and by white supremacists.

The ways in which these monuments operate in tandem — regardless of which white man they represent — is elegantly illustrated in this poster for the August 12, 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville:

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The image contains, amongst a profusion of other Alt-Right imagery, silhouettes of a number of statues — which may be intended to represent specific statues, but also don’t really need to. This shows an awareness of the way that the statue at the center of their campaign got some of its power from being one of many figures of white men from the American past that dot our landscape, and populate our collective imagination of the past. Like dog whistles from the past, these symbols affirm the dominance of whiteness in the United States to avowed white supremacists like Kessler and Damigo and Roof. In ways that certainly are uncomfortable for those who work in the field of heritage, there is nothing distorted or illegitimate about the heritage claims made by white supremacists. The buildings and statues they claim as white heritage today were in fact erected to represent just that — to set in stone the white male heritage of power. And they do that job well, conveying the message of white male dominance to all who encounter the American landscape, regardless of our racial backgrounds, as we are repeatedly exposed to the markers of white heritage. This is the enduring power of the commemorative landscape, and it is one that is ripe for exploitation by today’s white supremacists.

Written by

PhD: Archaeology & the Ancient World, Brown University; Prof: American Studies, History & African American Studies, Rutgers-Newark; Director: The Museum On Site

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