Posted on June 11, 2021

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

Brandon Hasbrouck, Slate, June 7, 2021

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. {snip}

Lee is the embodiment of white supremacy—he lived a life, as I previously argued, committed to racial subjugation and terror. {snip} 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.

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. {snip}


Historical revisionism shelters white supremacy. {snip} 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.