Bryan Lee is an architect and the design principal of Colloqate Design, a nonprofit multidisciplinary design practice dedicated to expanding community access to design and creating spaces of racial, social and cultural justice.
Not long ago, I sat on a panel to discuss monuments and memorials as civic infrastructure at the National Trust for Historic Preservation conference in San Francisco. Afterward, during a question-and-answer period, an older white man asked if there was any universe in which these existing monuments to the Confederacy should stand, given that the South won the war.
Yes, you read that correctly.
It was a bewildering statement, and the simple answer was no. The panel took issue with the premise, and as we challenged the questioner’s assertion, we came to realize that he viewed the war through the lens of its residual propaganda. And from his perspective, it seemed clear to him that the Confederacy must have prevailed—how else could so many monuments and markers honoring its generals and leaders stand in the streets of America’s cities?
This view of the world is the reason these symbols, lionized in civic space, are so incredibly dangerous: They validate a racist system of policies and practices designed to subjugate the powerless and operate continuously, independent of individual biases.
And, thanks to the growing movement to remove racist monuments around the world, many of these markers are in retreat. In the last few years we’ve watched Cecil Rhodes fall in South Africa, Lee and Beauregard leave New Orleans, Silent Sam knocked down in Chapel Hill*, and John A. MacDonald packed up in Victoria, Canada. All of these monuments were bound by the common cause of white supremacy, entrenched in the ideology of dehumanization and brutality.
But today the president of the United States demands that we spend billions of dollars to build a new monument—a wall on the nation’s southern border—under the same cause.
The spatial justice movement is rooted in the larger struggle for freedom and liberation that has always required challenging the systems represented by those symbols. The abolitionist movement challenged the system of enslavement. The civil rights movement challenged the system of political and legal subjugation. The Black Power movement challenged all systems of racial disempowerment, and Black Lives Matter challenges the system of police brutality and criminal justice.
White supremacy, established long before the founding of the U.S., found its footing in this country post-Reconstruction through both policy and physical space, through Jim Crow and Confederate monuments. This strategy to make a national statement of values through the icons and ideas of white supremacy grounded itself throughout the South and conspicuously attached itself to institutions of power. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, of the 1,700-plus monuments and symbols built from the late-19th century to the mid-20th century, a significant percentage are on the grounds of courthouses, or are actual buildings that bear the names of Confederate leaders.
Racism is the coordinated system of oppression, a power dynamic premised on the superiority of one race over another. To act in support and maintenance of this system is to be complicit or, yes, a racist. One’s ignorance of it does not negate it. The explicit attempt to reify a devastating migration system through a useless wall would fall under the category of a racist monument.
Monuments at their most cynical are propaganda—symbols that occupy space in the name of an ideology. As the Trump administration conceives it, a border wall would be next-level propaganda: a racist monument designed to stretch across states, dividing humans, instilling fear in communities, and occupying land to promote a system that views migrants and refugees as an enemy to be subjugated through force.
America thrives off the symbolism in our actions far more than the outcomes associated with them. As we currently reside in a particularly intense moment of propagandizing, we face a daunting proposition.
Is the president racist? Yes. Of course.
But is the president of the United States leveraging the country’s well-being to build the largest monument to white supremacy ever constructed?
Since he took office, Trump has taken every opportunity to vilify migrants and push for quantifiably harmful policies, and he’s used the notion of a wall as a political rallying call—one without merit or widespread public support. This should come as no surprise from a man who has made a living building monuments to himself. But to fully understand this pursuit by the administration, the shape and function of the wall are less important than the ideas it represents.
In the last month, we’ve seen the threat and subsequent shutdown of the federal government over the $5.7 billion ransom that the president has demanded from Congress for border wall construction. That would be just a fraction of the total cost of such a structure: Estimates vary widely, but the wall would cost $30 billion on the low end and up to $70 billion, according to a Democratic staff committee. On the campaign trail, Trump frequently insisted that Mexico would bear this cost. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox summarized that country’s position on this question best: “We’re not paying for the f**king wall.”
Americans, meanwhile, are already paying for the wall, with hundreds of thousands of federal jobs furloughed and immense economic pain inflicted. But beyond these costs, the social toll of the wall would be devastating. A few of the many consequences to this endeavor are laid out in the 2017 Brookings Institute report detailing the wall’s likelihood to split up indigenous lands, impose protracted eminent domain battles in border communities, and threaten water-sharing agreements vital to both Mexico and the United States.
As a candidate, Trump once boasted of a wall upwards of 65 feet high. But his administration has since settled on four prototypes topping out at 30 feet. The RFP for these prototype walls requested that “The wall design shall be reinforced concrete” and “shall be physically imposing in height.” To be clear, a wall at 30 feet high is five feet taller than nearly every conflict wall around the world—none of which have worked to stem migration. To be extra clear, we are not at conflict with migrants or refugees.
Of the many impracticalities surrounding the wall (cost, legality, environmental, political, etc.) the recent political decision to change the design of the wall from a concrete barrier to a steel post barrier reveals just how hollow this pursuit has always been. The assumption that any part of the opposition to the wall revolves around a matter of materiality and not the functional oppression of human beings shows a severe political and/or moral deficiency that should add to the chorus of synchronized alarm bells ringing in our heads.
The arguments against building this wall are clear, resounding and logical. But we are not having a conversation based in logic around border security; instead, we are wrestling over the metaphor of “border security” and bypassing all reasonable means of genuinely addressing the issue. The crisis we face is primarily of our own hand, and the price of human decency runs a bit more than we seem to be willing to pay.
We are the sum of our actions, and our actions reveal a nation, a party, and a president willing to adhere to and invest in the systems of white supremacy. The wall is merely a symbol of that allegiance, the propaganda that affirms it, and a monument to its vanity.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Silent Sam statue was in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, not Chapel Hill.