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Good riddance to Columbus

I am generally glad to hear from readers who disagree with me, but I was especially saddened by an email I got this week, because the racism it expressed was so open and nasty, or worse, heartfelt.

Like so many white Americans, I must shamefully admit I don't notice nearly as much racism as I should, mostly because it is not directed at me, but also because we've allowed a culture to grow in which it exists just below the surface, thinly veiled, out of sight and out of mind.

I guess for me that's part of the beauty of this awakening moment, in the aftermath of the shocking, hands-on execution of George Floyd in broad daylight on a city street.

Either you demand change in our racist culture or you fall in behind our racist president, who can't seem to find the words to condemn it. It's a moment of clarity. Our world is changing before our eyes, a tectonic shift.

It seems to be emboldening and exposing the now-defensive racists.

It's been a beautiful few weeks around here, with police in Norwich making an arrest for hate speech and employees of a Mystic business resigning and publicly calling out their former employers for racism.

On Sunday, I happened on the start of a Black Lives Matter march in Waterford. The huge crowd reflected the demographics of the town, which is 88% white, according to census data.

It was heartening to see so many white people, many gray-haired and risking their health in a pandemic crowd, to spend a beautiful June afternoon chanting and carrying Black Lives Matter signs down a main thoroughfare of their suburban town.

It made me almost giddy.

I could never have imagined that a month ago.

I also saw Sunday, to my heart's content, the now-empty parklet at Bank and Howard streets in New London, which used to host the imposing statue of slave-trading Christopher Columbus.

Kudos to Mayor Michael Passero for quickly ordering its removal, in pace with Columbus statue vandalism and removals around the country.

The mayor said he was removing the statue for safekeeping, to give the City Council time to decide its fate. But he said he supports its permanent removal, and I suspect he knew full well when he ordered it down that there was no way the council was going to vote to put it back.

The New London youth group Hearing Youth Voices called for the removal of the statue during their impressive protest march through the city earlier this month.

Other demands contained in a petition by the group, which now has more than 5,800 signatures, are the removal of police from city schools, a diversion of police funding to schools and social services, the establishment of a new community police review board and substituting community service or income-adjusted fines as punishment for petty crimes.

The removal of Columbus is a good start, but the city owes these young people a hearty discussion and deliberate consideration of all the topics they have raised.

At the same time, state lawmakers need to look seriously at new measures to address police accountability, starting with a transparency of police discipline files. The governor's executive order addressing some of the issues is a good start.

The racist email that sickened me this week was from someone complaining about the removal of the Columbus statue. It repeats a lot of old racist stereotypes about blacks, with gusto. I can't bring myself to quote from it.

Of course I know the Columbus statue was bought and paid for with ethnic pride, and the city's Italian community, once targets of discrimination, found comfort in identifying with the enterprising navigator, who in a simplistic telling of history came to be known as discoverer of the country.

But a century later, we know better and acknowledge the truth.

Yes, Italian Americans were the targets of horrible discrimination at one time, like so many other immigrants and ethnic minorities, but no one who slaughtered and enslaved so many people should be given a place of honor in our community.

We are at a moment I've never known in my life, and I'm old.

There's a lot to do, but I feel like there's a will for it.

That's what I saw Sunday in all those white people marching for change in Waterford.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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