Wisniewski: Columbus statues need context, not disrespect and desecration

Wisniewski: Columbus statues need context, not disrespect and desecration

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Mike Forcia raises his hands in the air as people photograph the fallen Christopher Columbus statue on June 11 at the Minnesota state capitol building in St. Paul, Minn.

Earlier in June, activists tore down a statue of Christopher Columbus outside the Minneapolis State Capitol. Mainstream media news coverage inevitably focused on the activists' view that Columbus was a racist villain, whose discovery of America led to the demise of native cultures. Few press reports acknowledged that the statue was erected by Italian American immigrants, themselves victims of discrimination, back in 1931 to celebrate both the man who discovered America as well as their own contributions to our country. Nor did they note that an Italian immigrant who helped build Grand Central Station, and his son, sculpted the monument as a symbol of the acceptance of Italian immigrants in Minnesota.

Perhaps even worse, a law professor and criminologist, who is associated with an archaeological advocacy group, actually tweeted encouragement for the deed, suggesting that chains would be the best way to bring down this and similar statues. Presumably, given her position, she should know incitement of vandalism is not free speech. Nor does it have anything whatsoever to do with our First Amendment rights to protest peacefully.

Unlawful destruction of Columbus statues continues elsewhere throughout our country, notably in Boston's North End, near its own Little Italy. Of course, here in Baltimore three years ago, the nation's oldest statue to Columbus, an 18th century obelisk, was damaged by unknown vandals in the middle of the night.

Somehow in the storyline, Columbus and Confederate statues have been wrongly blended as co-equal symbols of a racist past as the nation grapples with the killing of George Floyd, an African American man, by a white Minneapolis police officer.

Does American history include painful periods of oppression against Indigenous peoples? Yes. However, atoning for past transgressions best occurs by honoring Indigenous peoples with their own commemorations, not by retributive anger and obliteration of Columbus statues.

How did we come to this point? As a former presidentially appointed trustee and general counsel of the congressionally chartered Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation, which was created in 1992 on the 500th Anniversary of his discovery of America, and as an Italian American myself, I recognize Columbus as a man willing to take great risks in search of new worlds. Whatever his personal faults, without Columbus, there would be no United States, one of the relatively few countries in the world that guarantees the rights of individuals to petition their government peacefully through demonstrations.

Our foundation was committed to fostering community service through STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) grants to middle and high school students of all races. Perhaps, however, remedial instruction in history and critical thinking is what those younger members of our society responsible for toppling the statues representing our shared history need the most right now. How unfortunate is the double standard here: to raise awareness of historically oppressed populations, while simultaneously green lighting that it is still OK to marginalize Italian Americans as symbolized through their statue to the great Italian explorer. Archaeologists say context is everything, but for "woke" activists, any suggestion that a statue somehow represents a racist past alone is enough to prompt vandalism.

Educators _ including law professors _ have an obligation to teach our youth that our history and the contributions of those who have merited statues is far more complicated, rich and meaningful than assessments based solely on views about race. America did not become a great nation in spite of Columbus, but rather because he took high risks to introduce to the Americas positive aspects of Western civilization, the rule of law and the Gospel.

Of course, America has a racist past, and much has yet to be done, but statues of Columbus should also remind us of how the struggles of our historical heroes also helped make much of what is good in America today. Their memory should be treasured and respected or at least placed in the proper context of the time in which they lived, not reviled and desecrated.

Recently, when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was asked whether New York City's Columbus statue should be removed, he replied no, because it signifies appreciation for Italian American contributions. Here in Baltimore, we recently set a fine example of how to peacefully protest a horrific racial injustice. So too, may the citizens of Baltimore remain proud of Italian American contributions to our great state and ensure that our Christopher Columbus statues stand.

Anthony C. Wisniewski (anthonywis@yahoo.com) is a Maryland resident and former trustee and general counsel Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation (2007-2017).

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