The Ethicist: What Should I Do With Old Racist Memorabilia?

September 16, 2018 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “What Should I Do With Old Racist Memorabilia?”.

While renovating our home 30 years ago, we found an album of old postcards lodged in a rafter. Many were from the turn of the century, addressed to members of a family that settled in our community. A brief search at the time did not turn up any descendants.

The album was disintegrating, and we removed the cards. Over the years I forgot about them, but in getting ready to move, I came across them again. One in particular is offensive in its captioning and art to people of African descent. While I presume there is a market for this type of memorabilia, there is no way I would seek to profit from it. I offered it to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. I never heard from them, so it moved with us.

My husband thinks I should throw it away, but that feels wrong. I feel it is history that we should acknowledge, however painful and wrong. Your thoughts?

My response: There is no book in the sky or other measure of absolute right, wrong, good, bad, or evil that 7.6 billion people will agree to. If there were, you would have consulted it, gotten your answer and wouldn’t have had to write here. There isn’t, so you did.

There are many choices you can make where you don’t know all the possible outcomes, who will like the results, who might get hurt, and so on. I think of it like looking down a ski slope that splits, the paths diverge so you can’t either past the first part, and you have to choose. Or choosing which wave to surf.

When you can never know all the information you wish you could but still have to choose or risk standing in the cold while others pass you by, in life or on the slopes, the best I can think to do is to know that whichever you choose, you’ll enjoy it or live it the best you can, and that you’ll take responsibility for making it work. Also not to judge your choice based on information or experience that came after you chose but couldn’t have known at the time.

The New York Times response:

I am not a fan of the intentional destruction of historical artifacts. Just the other day, in fact, someone alerted me to a consignment of materials to a socialist bookstore that included a 10-stanza poem by Oliver Allstorm, who also wrote the words to the official song of Houston. The poem was prompted by the announcement in 1953 that the Englishwoman Peggy Cripps was marrying a West African, and it warned her:

The day shall come when all your guilt

Shall rob your soul of rest,

That pulls upon your breast.

Reader, I am that Mongrel child. The poet, who had a particular horror of miscegenation, was writing about my parents’ wedding (and yes, he rhymed “Peggy Cripps” with “Negroe’s lips”). Back in the early 1950s, the National Citizens Protective Association was selling the poem at a very reasonable price: 50 for a dollar. I paid $200.

The document — at once repugnant and strangely hilarious — is a worthy addition to the scrapbook my mother kept of the wildly various responses to her much-written-about wedding. Why should we want it to disappear from the historical record?

It’s a familiar thought that we need to understand our past, not least in order to help us avoid repeating the worst aspects of it. So your impulse to offer this souvenir card to a museum seems right. Of course, the sort of document you describe is well represented in collections already, and this may be why you didn’t hear back. But who knows whether there isn’t something about it that a historian might find useful in unpacking some detail of the history of American racial attitudes?

So if you think this card does have historical value, and you can’t readily find an interested archive or scholar, you could just put it up for sale on eBay, say, where it will join a large assemblage of racist artifacts. You can’t guarantee that you’ll approve of the motives of the buyer, but someone who is willing to pay for it is most likely to preserve it.

Given that your motives are honorable, I don’t share your worry about profiting from the sale. Selling an image isn’t endorsing its message. And my guess is that most contemporary collectors of such items aren’t motivated by racism. Still, if you want to avoid profiting, there’s an easy solution. Just send the proceeds to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. That’s an offer they won’t turn down.


While in the process of downsizing, I came upon a notorious piece of history. My son, who died in his teens in 1991, was given a World War II artifact by his great-uncle. It was a German Nazi armband he took from a deceased soldier. I was recently laid off from work and have been dealing with financial difficulties. Do I seek to gain some monetary value from this thing or, given our current political situation, should I just burn it?

My response: I recommend a different perspective than asking what others think you should do. There are many choices you can make where you don’t know all the possible outcomes, who will like the results, who might get hurt, and so on. I think of it like looking down a ski slope that splits, the paths diverge so you can’t either past the first part, and you have to choose. Or choosing which wave to surf.

When you can never know all the information you wish you could but still have to choose or risk standing in the cold while others pass you by, in life or on the slopes, the best I can think to do is to know that whichever you choose, you’ll enjoy it or live it the best you can, and that you’ll take responsibility for making it work. Also not to judge your choice based on information or experience that came after you chose but couldn’t have known at the time.

The New York Times response:

As I say, the destruction of historical artifacts is the wrong response to the moral horrors of the past. But your situation is different, in two ways. First, a run-of-the-mill Nazi armband is a fairly commonplace item with no distinctive historical interest. That postcard, by contrast, might have an image or text that is particular and, therefore, potentially historically instructive. Second, there’s a greater possibility, in the current state of our culture, that your item will end up in the hands of someone who supports some version of Nazi ideology and intends to put it to use. You don’t want to assist someone in the expression of abhorrent attitudes. This wrong is minor — the item isn’t generating those attitudes — but real. It’s probably a good thing that Nazi armbands aren’t worth a lot of money, because I’m inclined to say that, in this case, trashing would be fine.


A few years ago, I was asked by the cemetery commission in my hometown if I would contribute to a commemorative plaque for my great-grandfather’s grave, honoring his service as a soldier in the Confederate Army. I wrote a check, reasoning thus: My great-grandfather would have been in his mid-20s when he joined the Confederate Army in Texas. He had emigrated from Germany at age 12 and worked as a saddler, work that he continued to do as a soldier. As I understand it, he didn’t see combat, never owned slaves and likely had little understanding of or stake in the war.

Though I never heard him spoken of when I was growing up, I still felt sympathy for a person whose life was touched by the grisly Civil War. For me, the emblem on his grave merely commemorated a truth about his life, one over which he had had no control. I feel sure that he had none of the clarity that we have today about the dreadful events of his day.

But I am an elderly white socialist with a black grandson, and I now feel that I made a mistake in contributing to a Confederate memorial. What would you say?

My response: There is no book in the sky or other measure of absolute right, wrong, good, bad, or evil that 7.6 billion people will agree to. If there were, you would have consulted it, gotten your answer and wouldn’t have had to write here. There isn’t, so you did.

Besides the problem you describe—a past that no one can change—you say you feel guilty/anxious/angry/other emotion you don’t like. You can manage your emotional response—through, for example, choosing your environment, beliefs, and behavior—and I’ve never seen a benefit to suffering or being miserable. I recommend developing the emotional skills to manage your emotions. You’ll make yourself more effective in achieving your goals and feel emotions you prefer, which I call a better life.

The New York Times response:

Despite persistent attempts to rewrite the past, responsible historians agree that the Confederacy went to war in order to maintain a system predicated upon the enslavement of black people. What its defenders like to call the Lost Cause was, in fact, a Bad Cause. Those who fought for the Confederacy may, as individuals, have had no interest in maintaining slavery; many served because they were compelled to do so, felt loyalty to their communities or wanted to defend their homes. (Nor can we assume, conversely, that the average Union soldier was putting his life in jeopardy to free the slaves.) I agree with you, then, that your grandfather’s war service doesn’t make him a villain. Yet honoring service to a dishonorable cause can itself be dishonorable. Worse, not a few of those who celebrate the Confederacy are motivated by racial animus, implicit or explicit. You shouldn’t beat yourself up for what you did. But your current attitude is the right one. Confederate propaganda is part of our history; it shouldn’t be part of our present.

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