By Alex Vidmar

Amid timely critiques of our policing system that are but one facet of systemic anti-Black racism in the United States, recent discussions have turned to the place of monuments memorializing ugly moments of our history. As a lover of history and a citizen of East Greenwich, I feel it necessary to respond to Alan Clarke’s illuminating piece about the history of Black people in our town and the issue of removing two historical statues from the old county jail (read it HERE).

Alan’s piece taught me much about the history of Scalloptown and the treatment of its Black residents, particularly in the last century. I learned the origin of the statues on the jailhouse was to be a symbol of equal justice under the law, regardless of race. 

Yet Alan calls for a “pox on the society” that could remove these statues and erase our “true history.” When considering the history of racial discrimination, which Alan presents, I argue that the statues – intended to embody the ideal of equal justice under the law – are not our true history. Our true history is, evidently, one that never lived up to that ideal of equality in the first place.

This is true even in today’s sleepy East Greenwich. In 2019, 18 percent of arrests by the EGPD were Black suspects, despite the fact that 2019 census data estimates less than 1 percent of people in town as “Black or African American alone”. [1 & 2] Town Council President Mark Schwager was quoted in a May 23 article that our town is still pitifully below the required 10 percent of affordable housing that is so important to diversity. [3] This is due to centuries of racial housing discrimination just like in Scalloptown.

Many quintessentially “American” ideals espouse the virtues of equal opportunity, but our history proves that righteous themes and virtues require follow-up, action, and accountability. The Statue of Liberty may encourage our country to open its borders to immigrants and refugees, but that message is lost when our policies contradict it.

We should not continue to contradict our ideal of equality in our town. To undo a history of disenfranchising Black people, we must bring affordable housing to East Greenwich; we must encourage and uplift Black business owners to set up shop here; we must make our community welcoming in spirit, policy, and deed.

As for the statues, it is important to memorialize an accurate portrayal of the past. Nationally, removing statues of Confederate leaders does not undo slavery or make people forget about the Civil War. Monuments should memorialize the oppressed, not the oppressors. Why not have statues of people breaking free from the chains of slavery, accompanied by text explaining what role the Confederacy had in defending slavery?

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In East Greenwich, why memorialize the town’s unrealized ideals of equality at a former jail, rather than memorializing the inhabitants of Scalloptown who were let down by our town in decades past? The good intentions to display our town artifacts only cause harm without additional historical context. Perhaps both the statues and the history of Scalloptown should coexist on display to truly educate the public about the treatment of Black people in East Greenwich. 

Finally, let me make clear that debates about statues and artifacts are a drop in the bucket of making equal justice under the law a reality. I hope East Greenwich works hard to address our very real lack of diversity by backing meaningful initiatives to make our community welcoming. Until Black people are welcomed here and given access to an equal voice in our community, unlike the residents of Scalloptown who were driven away, all EG residents deserve a pox for continuing a legacy of discrimination.

Alex Vidmar is a resident of Court House Lane and a tired optimist this year.

References:

[1] Rhode Island State Police, 2019 Uniform Crime Report, https://risp.ri.gov/documents/UCR/2019.pdf

[2] United States Census Bureau, QuickFacts for East Greenwich town, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/eastgreenwichtownkentcountyrhodeisland

[3] EG News, Local Voices on George Floyd, Race and EG, May 31, 2020, https://eastgreenwichnews.com/local-voices-on-george-floyd-race-and-eg/


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