Jurisprudence

White Supremacy Was on Trial at Washington and Lee University. It Won.

Statue of Lee on a horse with plastic fencing around it on a cloudy day
A statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Market Street Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, on April 1. Eze Amos/Getty Images

After the end of the Civil War, Robert E. Lee, the general who commanded the army of the Confederacy, was never tried, convicted, or sentenced for any crimes—not treason, not murder, not torture. Instead, he became president of Washington College, where he attracted students molded in his image, inspired by his lost cause, and motivated to maintain racial hierarchy. Under Lee’s leadership, his students would, among other things, form a KKK chapter and harass and assault Black school children. The board of trustees of Washington College honored this legacy when it decided to rename its institution Washington and Lee University.

Advertisement

Lee is the embodiment of white supremacy—he lived a life, as I previously argued, committed to racial subjugation and terror. He fought to enslave Black people—so the Confederate States of America could continue to profit on Black labor and Black pain while creating an anti-democratic state founded upon white supremacy. For this reason many stakeholders asked the current board of trustees of Washington and Lee University, where I am an assistant professor of law at the law school, to remove Lee as a namesake. After significant and critical national attention, Lee was finally put on trial at the place where his body is buried. Not guilty, the board of trustees announced on Friday. The vote was not even close—a supermajority of trustees (22 out of 28 trustees, or 78 percent) voted to retain Lee as a namesake. That vote, however, did more. It signaled that Washington and Lee University will continue to shine as a beacon of racism, hate, and privilege.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

In response to the board’s decision, the university’s president released a statement. He declared that Lee’s name does not define the university or its stakeholders; rather, “we define it.” But we cannot engage in historical revisionism to redefine Lee’s name, nor should we. The board announced its commitment to “repudiating racism, racial injustice, and Confederate nostalgia.” But we cannot hope to make consequential change until we accept the truth of what Lee’s name means.

The jury at Washington and Lee harkens back to Jim Crow juries—white, male, privileged, and rigged. The jury, composed of 28 trustee members, was mostly white (25 trustees) and mostly male (23 trustees). Many of the witnesses supporting Lee were white, as were many of the big donors who threatened to withhold contributions if Lee’s name was removed. The outcome was never in doubt.

Advertisement

White supremacy has been put on trial before throughout our history. The outcomes in those trials was also predictable. The “Indian Removal Act” ensured white officials could never be found guilty of stealing Native land and committing genocide on the Trail of Tears. White insurrectionists in Wilmington, North Carolina, murdered Black residents, destroyed Black-owned businesses, and then ousted Wilmington’s anti-segregation, pro–equal rights government to insulate themselves against accountability. The United States Supreme Court sanctioned Japanese internment during World War II. An all-white, all-male jury found Emmett Till’s murderers not guilty after 67 minutes of deliberation. Los Angeles cops were acquitted of bludgeoning Rodney King after the jury watched the tape more than 30 times.

Advertisement

When our racial ghosts are on trial, we know the outcome. When truth and justice are on trial, we know the outcome. When our country is asked to reject a revisionist tissue of historical lies, we know the outcome. White supremacy wins. White supremacy remains adaptable, persistent, violent, and nearly undefeated.

It inspires an insurrection. It introduces 389 restrictive voting right bills in 48 states over the past six months. It forbids schools to give a true accounting of our history—a history of racial violence, from the Trail of Tears, to Black Wall Street, to extrajudicial killings including those of Emmett Till, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor. It allows Washington and Lee University to keep Lee as a namesake because it is safer to benefit from white supremacy than to summon the courage to even appear anti-racist.

Historical revisionism shelters white supremacy. It entrenches white supremacy. It emboldens white supremacy. We need truth and reconciliation in America. We must face our past head-on and acknowledge it for what it was: oppression and racial terror fueled by white supremacy. Only then can we start to reimagine our democratic institutions as more—more just, more fair, more equal. Only then will we build the capacity, the resolve, and the collective will to find white supremacy guilty.

Advertisement