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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

May 12, 2008

Written by C.N.

More Controversy Over MLK Statue

You might remember my previous post that described criticisms over the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. memorial statue in Washington DC. That initial controversy centered on the fact that the sculptor was not African American, or even American — he was Chinese and that critics charged that King’s legacy was being “outsourced” to China.

Well, a new and different controversy has emerged — as MSNBC reports, the federal commission that has final approval over the statue now wants the form of the statue changed, saying that the current pose appears too “confrontational” and “totalitarian”:

The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts thinks “the colossal scale and Social Realist style of the proposed statue recalls a genre of political sculpture that has recently been pulled down in other countries,” commission secretary Thomas Luebke said in a letter in April. . . .

The centerpiece is to be a 2 1/2 -story sculpture of the civil rights leader carved in a giant chunk of granite. Called the Stone of Hope, it would depict King, standing with his arms folded, looming from the stone. At 28 feet tall, it would be eight feet taller than the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial. . . .

Its general design was approved by the seven-member federal commission that year, based on drawings of the Stone of Hope that showed a more subtle image of King, from the waist up, as if he were emerging organically out of the rock, the commission said. . . .

The team wants to hold on “to the power and inspirational image” of the current version, [the memorial’s executive architect] said. The sense of confrontation in the sculpture is not a coincidence. “We see him . . . as a warrior,” Chaffers said yesterday.

“We see him as a warrior for peace . . . not as some pacifist, placid, kind of vanilla, but really a man of great conviction and strength.”

It should come as no surprise that such national memorials are inherently prone to historical, cultural, and political disagreements and controversy. We only have to remember the initial storm of criticism surrounding Maya Lin’s design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a classic example of that.

Nonetheless, in my opinion, this latest controversy over the actual look and pose of the statue represents another form of being “colorblind” in 21st century American society. As I recently wrote about, the dominant norm and discourse in American race relations these days seem to be implicitly based on being “colorblind.”

In theory, it’s great to not treat people differently based on their racial/ethnic identity. But in practice, ignoring people’s racial identity means ignoring their different histories, characteristics, and community needs and instead, relying on the simplistic idea that we now live in a true meritocracy where racism no longer exists and everyone is on a completely level playing field.

In that context, I am not surprised that the federal commission (undoubtedly composed predominantly of Whites) found the current pose too “confrontational.” Apparently, they do not want the statue to remind people that the Civil Rights Movement was a struggle and that many people actually died in the process of “confronting” racism.

They would rather pretend that everything is perfectly fine now and that as a “colorblind” society, we don’t need to dwell on the past and be reminded that a little over 40 years ago, it was perfectly legal and normal to treat people of color as inferior, subordinate, second-class citizens.

In other words, in wanting the look of Dr. King’s statue to look less “confrontational,” what the federal commission wants to do is to avoid confronting the racism that Dr. King fought against and that still subtly pervades the mindset of American society today.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what it means to be colorblind these days.


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Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "More Controversy Over MLK Statue" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2008/05/more-controversy-over-mlk-statue/> ().

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