This summer, just about a year after a white nationalist murdered Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia, I visited Memphis, Tennessee, and witnessed an odd scene.
There’s a small park in the middle of the city, just off the main drag downtown. It’s a peaceful spot, perched above the Mississippi River and shaded by tall old trees. For generations, locals knew it as Confederate Park, with cannons ringing its edges in hostile formation. A statue of Jefferson Davis—the Confederacy’s only president—towered in the center, striking a triumphant pose, about a mile away from the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead.
Memphis is an overwhelmingly black city, and after Heyer’s murder, municipal leaders wanted white-supremacist iconography removed from its public spaces. But the Tennessee Legislature keeps vigilant watch over the kinds of trouble that majority-black cities can cause, and after Dylann Roof’s terrorist attack a few years ago, lawmakers gave Confederate mythology some extra protection. They updated the state’s historic-preservation law to make it much more difficult to remove historical markers from public property. Let that sink in: This was how the State of Tennessee responded to a white-nationalist attack that killed nine black people in a church.
So Memphis’s leaders had to get creative: They sold the park to a not-for-profit organization. That meant it was no longer public property, and its new owners could redesign the park as they pleased. This maneuver outraged the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who appealed to the state for help. During my visit, the whole matter was still being adjudicated, so Memphis’s quiet little park was in limbo. A tall chain-link fence marked off the space where Jefferson Davis once presided. His statue had already been taken down, though the pedestal upon which he’d stood for generations remained in place. It was an awkward scene, as well as an apt testament to our political moment.
There’s an election coming, but it has nothing to do with partisan politics. Nor is it about left versus right, or our national identity, or how prosperous we do or don’t feel, or any of the other prisms through which we typically view politics. It’s not even a referendum on the president, really. He’s a stark representation of the matter at hand, but an up-or-down vote on Donald Trump is just a proxy for the real questions we can no longer avoid: Are we prepared to end the minority rule that white men have wielded over the United States for hundreds of years? Are we ready to tear down the foundation upon which that power stands and build something entirely new?