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Why the vote to remove Confederate statues from the Capitol matters

A clear majority of the House GOP voted to keep the Capitol's most offensive statues in place. The bill passed anyway.


The U.S. Capitol features two statues from every state in the nation, but many of the statues were chosen years ago and honor people whose legacy is now seen in a new light. Specifically, many Southern states are represented by statues of Confederate leaders who took up arms against the United States.

They're joined by a bust of the late Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, the notorious author of the 1857 Dred Scott decision that ruled that African Americans couldn't be American citizens.

Last summer, as national protests erupted over racial injustices, the House brought up a simple measure: the Capitol would remove statues honoring Confederates and the Taney bust. "Defenders and purveyors of sedition, slavery, segregation, and white supremacy have no place in this temple of liberty," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said at the time.

It passed 305 to 113, at which point it went to the Republican-led Senate, where it was ignored.

Yesterday, House Democrats tried again.

The House voted Tuesday on legislation to remove Confederate statues from public display in the Capitol as well as a bust of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney who wrote the 1857 Dred Scott decision that said Black people couldn't be citizens. It passed the House 285 to 120, with 67 GOP lawmakers voting in favor of the bill along with all Democrats, who hold a razor-thin majority in the Senate and would need 60 votes to advance the bill.

For Republicans, this was a step backwards: last July, 72 GOP House members supported the proposal, but yesterday, that total slipped to 67. Of the 120 members who opposed the bill, all of them were Republicans.

Whether the measure can overcome a GOP filibuster in the Senate is unclear, but the odds of success aren't great.

What was especially notable about yesterday's debate, however, is how House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) took the opportunity to not only endorse the legislation, but to inject lazy and gratuitous partisanship into the discussion.

"Let me state a simple fact," McCarthy said. "All the statues being removed by this bill are statues of Democrats."

As a matter of history, the House GOP leader was correct: Southern Dixiecrats did, in fact, honor their own with Capitol statues. This, of course, was before Democrats became the party of civil rights in the middle part of the 20th century, at which point segregationists migrated to the GOP.

In the years that followed, Democrats embraced their role as the party of inclusion and racial progress, while Republicans became the party of the "Southern Strategy," opposition to affirmative action, campaigns based on race-baiting, discriminatory voter-suppression laws, and politicians like Jesse Helms.

He probably didn't intend to make such a point, but Kevin McCarthy offered a window yesterday into a larger truth: the Capitol's most offensive statues represent Dixiecrats who would be wholly out of place in today's Democratic Party, which is why Democrats stood united in voting to remove them.

But as the dust settled, it was a clear majority of McCarthy's Republican Party that voted to keep the statues in place.