Saturday, June 6, 2020

One Statue, One Symbolic Gesture: The Case of the Texas Ranger Statue at Love Field

The other day, airport officials at Dallas Love Field removed a 12' brass sculpture that has greeted travelers for decades.

The sculpture is of a law enforcement officer, a Texas Ranger. The sculpture's caption reads, "One Riot, One Ranger"--a reference to the apocryphal story that when a single Texas Ranger appeared in response to a riot there was someone who asked if he was really alone and the ranger replied, "You only have one riot, don't you?"

The model for the sculpture was a Texas Ranger by the name of Jay Banks. The impetus for the removal of the statue comes from a recently published excerpt, in D Magazine, from a forthcoming book, Cult of Glory, by Doug Swanson (a Pulitzer Prize finalist and, for a year, a John S. Knight Fellow in Journalism at Stanford University). But while that publication called attention to some uncomfortable truths about Jay Banks, current national events almost certainly played a big role in the swiftness of the decision to remove the statue. What Swanson's excerpt reveals is that Banks commanded Rangers who carried out a deeply troubling assignment: they blocked the integration of a public high school and a junior college in Mansfield, Texas.

The move to take down the statue is predictably controversial, peppered with cries of political correctness run amok. One person I know on social media bemoaned the fact that, because Banks did one thing people don't like, we are tearing down a tribute to someone who spent a career serving and protecting the public.

But just as one Texas Ranger can, purportedly, quell a riot, so too can one act by a law officer have far-reaching and career-defining implications.

A favorite quote of mine, from A.J. Muste, is this: "If you can't love Hitler, you can't love anybody." Muste is here make a very challenging but also a quasi-logical claim about the nature of Christian love, the distinct kind of love that does not wait on worth but extends unconditionally to all. His point was that if I can't love Hitler, then my love has conditions; and if my love has conditions, it isn't this unconditional Christian kind of love. And that means that this ONE instance tells us something about all of my acts of love: none of them are Christian love in the full sense.

Likewise, one police action by an individual officer can, at least in certain cases, reveal to us something career-defining, something about who that officer is and what values and commitments shape the nature of his police work. It can tell us, among other things, whom he sees himself as serving in his vocation--and whom he does not serve.

And that, in turn, can tell us a lot about what his name and likeness mean, symbolically, when lifted up--or taken down--by a community. A career-defining moment may not only tell who this officer is, but the values of the community that chooses to honor that officer. If a community hoists up a statue to that officer, what is the community saying about itself, about its members, about its values? If they leave it up when they learn something troubling, what does that say? And if the same community takes the statue down, what does that say?

The decisions about erecting monuments, keeping them up, and taking them down are decisions about what a community wants to say about itself to its citizens and to wider world. One statue can thus mean a lot, and what we do with that statue can both express and shape the values of a community. It can help determine whether Black Lives Matter, really matter on an equal footing with White lives, to a community and its criminal justice system.

With this in mind, let's look at the story about Jay Banks that Swanson shares in the published excerpt from his forthcoming book.

I want to review the story that Swanson tells in my own words, since I want to highlight certain features of it that are important for drawing moral conclusions. In 1956, in keeping with the Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court Decision, the NAACP tried to integrate the high school in Mansfield, Texas. White citizens responded with outrage, threats of violence, and an effigy of a lynched black man strung up at the entrance to the school. The governor responded by sending in the Rangers--not to quell the angry white supremacist crowds and help the black children go to school, but to help the angry white supremacists keep integration from happening.

Let me say that another way: these Rangers were not sent to enforce the law of the land but to help the white citizens of Mansfield to continue segregationist policies in violation of the highest laws of the land.

Jay Banks was the Ranger in command. And he did as ordered. It was his mission to enforce unconstitutional segregationist policies, and he carried it out.

We could imagine a brave officer of the law refusing such a mission on the grounds that his job was to enforce the law, not help citizens violate it. We could imagine some Texas Ranger taking a principled stand for justice in that moment in history, bucking the white supremacist values that were so widespread and instead speaking a prophetic moral message of racial equality. It would make a great story. But Jay Banks was not the hero in such a story. He made no such courageous stand.

Nor did he did make any attempt to disperse the violence-threatening mob of white citizens who were gathered to defy US law and enforce white supremacist principles.

Nor did he make any attempt to take down the sinister effigy of a lynched Black man--a symbol used to terrorize the Black population of Mansfield just as lynchings and the threat of lynchings have been used for generations to terrorize Black people. He let that stay up.

Here's a picture of Jay Banks, leaning against a tree in front of the school, the dangling effigy in place:

Ranger EJ Banks in front of Mansfield Highschool

When asked about it later, he explained his actions as follows: “They were just ‘salt of the earth’ citizens. They were concerned because they were convinced that someone was trying to interfere with their way of life.”

Banks and the Rangers dispatched to Mansfield were successful. As Swanson notes about the high school integration effort, "Blacks were so intimidated that none attempted to enroll at Mansfield." When two young Black people, aged 17 and 18, attempted to enroll at the local junior college, they were met by an angry mob--one that a Life Magazine photographer described as among the meanest he'd ever seen.

The Rangers, including Banks, stood with the mob. They made no attempt to disperse the mob but, instead, threatened to arrest the two young Black people, who then retreated. Afterwards, the White Citizens Council treated Banks to a chicken dinner.

So what does all of this tell us? What I know specifically about Banks' career overall is limited to what I just shared. But I assume that he did many good things in the course of a career in law enforcement. I assume he apprehended violent criminals and helped to prevent acts of violence. I assume he protected innocent people from harm and gave a helping hand to people in trouble. Maybe he helped a lost child find her parents. Maybe he stood his ground in the face of dire threats to his life in order to keep other people alive. Maybe he saw people broken down on the side of the highway and stopped to help.

But when I use the word "people," I wonder who these people are. Because here's the thing: in Mansfield, Texas, a mob comprised of one segment of the population threatened violence against another. They hoisted up one of the most terrible, terrifying symbolic images one can imagine: a lynched body, a symbol of hanging someone until dead. A Black body, of course, not a White one. The symbol probably did not instill terror in Whites. But it surely did to the Black citizens of Mansfield. It said to them, loudly and forcefully, "We will murder you if you exercise your newly-acknowledged legal right to attend this school."

Jay Banks called the people who delivered this message "the salt of the earth." He defended them on the grounds that "someone" was trying to "interfere with their way of life."

And he acted to protect their way of life from the "someone" who threatened it.

He saw that as his job. He did not protest it or resist it. He saw it as his job: to serve and protect the White community and its way of life from the threat posed by Blacks, by the prospect of Black equality, and by those outsiders (whatever their color) who worked for equality and justice.

I keep returning to this portrayal of violence-threatening mobs as "the salt of the earth," because it communicates a vision of what law enforcement is about, a vision that's bound up with white supremacy. Mobs that gather and threaten violence in order to thwart people from doing what the highest law in the land says they have a legal right to do? THAT is the very definition of lawlessness. A commitment to law enforcement that was impartial with respect to race would balk at defending such a mob.

In order to do what Jay Banks did in Mansfield, he had to have an understanding of his role, of his purpose, that was not impartial with respect to race. He had to believe that it was his mission to protect and serve White people--and a big part of what he was supposed to protect them against was the threat posed by Blacks. Not just Black violence, but Black presumption--the presumption of equality and dignity and respect that trying to enroll in a junior college represents.

This means that Jay Banks did not merely see his role as being about protecting and serving White citizens but about protecting and serving their White privilege. He stood with the White citizens of Mansfield to face down that threat to their privilege posed by integration.

Now let me pause here and say something important: I'm not claiming here that Jay Banks was some kind of moral monster who helped to fire up the racist sentiments in Mansfield. Far from it. In seeing things the way that he did, and in seeing his role as a law enforcement officer as he did, he was probably pretty normal.

It was probably how he was raised to see things. It had to be, for him to look at mobs threatening Black children with lynching and call then the salt of the earth. The people who did this were his people, people like him who were raised to think as he did about race in America. And he saw his job as a Texas Ranger not to be the egalitarian administration of justice or the unbiased enforcement of the law but the protection of these White citizens and their privilege, even against threats that came from the law itself--from the highest law of the land, the Constitution of the United States of America and the rulings of the Supreme Court.

The way that an officer of the law carries out an assignment like this tells us how that officer of the law sees his role and his purpose in society. And what we see on display here is a racialized vision of law enforcement. It is about protecting and serving White citizens and their privilege. It is about protecting them from the threats posed by Black citizens (although I doubt he'd call them citizens), whether that threat came in the form of theft or promised violence, or whether it came from the attempt to assert equality and dignity.

The fact that this way of seeing things was commonplace at the time may well serve to soften the force of our moral repudiation. Today, people know better and have no excuse for thinking in a such a way--but maybe in Jay Banks' day, they didn't know better. Or perhaps they were just beginning to encounter the insights that could help them to know better. In terms of assessing the moral blameworthiness of people in the past, it can lead us into trouble if we simply apply our contemporary standards and values without qualification. While I believe injustice is injustice no matter what the era, understandable cultural blindness can partly excuse people for failing to be just, even if such blindness can never make injustice anything other than wrong.

But in taking down a statue of someone from the past, the issue at hand is not how we should morally assess the overall moral praiseworthiness or blameworthiness of the person represented in the statue. The question is what values we want to symbolically affirm today with the public symbols we choose to display.

The fact is that precisely because Jay Banks was a man of his time rather than a man ahead of his time, he represents something far bigger than himself: he represents a vision of law enforcement that has for generations led to the marginalization and violation of Black Americans. It is precisely this vision of law enforcement whose legacy we have to cast off if we want to move into a future in which fewer George Floyds are murdered by police officers. It is precisely this vision of law enforcement that has no place in any system of law enforcement today. Not that it did back then, either, but we have the clarity of vision today to stand against that vision and to lift up in its place one that is truly egalitarian and just.

To do that, we need to clearly repudiate racist visions of law enforcement. This is what the historic moment we are in calls for: unambiguous repudiation of the vision of law enforcement that sees the mission of police to be the protection of White Americans and White privilege against the threats posed by people of color and their demands for equal dignity and respect.

In other words, this moment in history calls us to unambiguously repudiate the vision of law enforcement that Jay Banks represents--the one so clearly on display during his defining moments in Mansfield, Texas. He was perhaps no more guilty than anyone else in his day for affirming and acting on such a racist vision. Still, he was an uncritical agent of that racist vision and its evils. And that means he represents this vision. And there is no way to unambiguously repudiate that vision while, at the same time, leaving intact a symbol in a public space that lifts up someone whose career represents it.

At the same time, a public act of taking down such a symbol is a public message with its own symbolic meaning: "We are turning away from this racist conceptions of policing; we are choosing not to honor it."

Of course, there are difficulties here because public symbols are complex. This is especially true of the public symbols that are tied to the legacy of human lives, such as statues and the names of famous people attached to building or streets or town squares. No human being symbolizes just one thing. And neither does Jay Banks. And there are surely things in Jay Banks' life that we want to lift up today.

If we look at the lives of those officers of the law who, in earlier generations, saw their mission through racist lenses and went out to serve and protect White citizens while keep Black ones down--if we are honest and fair as we examine their stories, we will find them standing for things we want to honor: their courage in facing danger for the sake of the helpless, for example. But surely we can find people in our history who exemplify these virtues without the limitations that racism imposes on their expression. It's probably true that, at some point, Jay Banks went out of his way to help a child. But my guess is it was a white child, and that he wouldn't have shown the same compassion for a black child. But surely there are law officers in the state of Texas who have shown compassion without racist constraints. So let's honor those officer.

If we want to honor the virtues of law enforcement without also honoring the racist history of policing in America, let's find those prophetic officers who stood for racial equality when it wasn't popular to do so, the ones who were asked to enforce inequality and said no. Let's find the officers who took a stand for racial justice. Let's find Black officers who had the courage to take up a calling in law enforcement despite a hostile environment, who blazed a trail paved with moral courage and helped to challenge racist assumptions.

Let's find those officers who represent the values we want our law enforcement agencies today to embody. Let's commission statues of them.

Maybe the people of Dallas want to lift up what is best in the history of the Texas Rangers. So let's find someone who can symbolize that--someone who saw the mission of the Rangers as demanding opposition to racist oppression rather than someone who happily went along with a Governor's order to enforce racial oppression. Surely in the storied ranks of the Texas Rangers it is possible find such a person, right?

So find that person, make a statue, and erect it where Jay Banks' statue used to stand. One statue, one symbolic gesture that affirms our community's opposition to racist law enforcement and the respect we hold for those officers of the law who truly embody a commitment to equality under the law, to even-handed administration of legal justice, to fairness and dignity, to the idea of serving and protecting everyone in the community regardless of such markers as race or ethnicity, creed or sexuality.

Our symbols matter. Even one symbolic change can, like a Texas Ranger wading into a riot alone, make a big difference in who feels included in the community, who feels marginalized, who sees law enforcement as an ally in the quest to live a good life, and who sees law enforcement as a threat.

In this historic moment, let us make the kinds of symbolic changes that reflect the values of equality and justice and human dignity that can help us move towards a more inclusive and harmonious nation.


  1. After addressing some feedback on social media, it occurs to me it might be helpful to lay out the main argument of this essay in an informal premise-by-premise way. So here it is:

    1. Jay Banks’ leadership of the Rangers’ efforts to prevent school integration in Mansfield does not merely represent an isolated act but dramatizes Banks’ understanding of his law enforcement work: he saw law enforcement as being about serving and protecting White citizens, and he saw Blacks and their pursuit of equal dignity as part of what he was protecting them against.

    2. The statue of Banks is a statue of him in his law enforcement uniform with the Rangers’ slogan affixed to it, and is thus intended as a public symbol to lift up and honor law enforcement by lifting up and honoring Banks in his role AS a law enforcement officer.

    3. That Banks’ approach to law enforcement work and his philosophy of law enforcement were essentially racist is relevant when his image is used as a public symbol to lift up law enforcement. It symbolizes a communal lifting up of a racist vision of law enforcement. Not all law enforcement officers would serve to symbolize such a thing, and so it is possible to lift up law enforcement without directly lifting up its racist expression—by choosing to lift up the likeness of an officer who did not harbor such a racist vision of law enforcement (or who is known for opposing such a vision).

    4. Black Americans are in anguish today because they feel as if law enforcement is not FOR them but AGAINST them; they are crying out because it feels as if law enforcement exists primarily to protect and serve Whites, and their lives don’t matter.

    5. A community symbolically and publicly lifting up and honoring a law enforcement officer whose career clearly embodies a racist vision of law enforcement will BOTH reinforce these feelings in the Black community, perpetuating their sense of alienation from law enforcement, AND provide encouragement to those in law enforcement who harbor this racist vision (thus exacerbating the features of law enforcement that produce these feelings in the first place).

    6. A society that cares about just and equitable law enforcement will not want to reinforce Black alienation from law enforcement or want to encourage those in law enforcement who harbor a racist vision, and will therefore remove public symbols that do these things.

    7. Therefore, a society that cares about just and equitable law enforcement will remove the statue of Jay Banks.

    Note that none of this entails that Banks was all bad, that there weren't aspects of his life and legacy that deserve respect and admiration, etc. What it entails is that if the state wants to lift up a symbol of law enforcement for the purpose of honoring the men and women who serve, they should choose someone other than Banks.

    Note also that this argument nowhere relies on the premise that, in order to be memorialized in a statue or with a building name or street name, etc., you must be perfect. Avoiding that premise is deliberate, because I believe that premise to be false. I think that NO human being is perfect, and that it still makes sense to memorialize human lives. But in doing so, we need to be conscious of what we symbolically SAY when we memorialize a given person. And that will, in part, be a function a the individuals PUBLIC LEGACY--their most significant acts and achievements in public life. It will also, in part, be a function of the current social moment and the issues that society is struggling with in that moment, and the way in which the memorialized individual's life connects up with those issues.

  2. Fantastic synopsis of the situation Eric - well done!
    The thing that I'm finding difficult as an AWD:"Average White Dude" is how to respectfully accept, acknowledge, celebrate and affirm my Black Brothers and Sisters without coming across as being a condescending, obsequious and an obnoxious sycophant. It's easier said than done and I've ended up inadvertently offending some in the process of reaching out. Black & White Lives Matter Together Forever I say and I have no hesitation whatsoever supporting reparations and incentives to make it a more level playing field for all those who were systemically victimized beyond belief by the Satanic institution of 'Slavery' and its horrific historical effects. As a Sculptor and unapologetic Universalist, I can think of a thousand other things that could be sculpted respectfully rather than effigies of "Good Old Boys.