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An image of the White House on the morning on January 6, 2020, before the Trump sedition rally started, with evidence of the columns and triangular pediments alluded to in Trump’s executive order Credit: Voice of America via Wikipedia

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Do y’all remember the “Unite the Right 2” rally, held in Washington DC on August 12, on the anniversary of the deadly white supremacist march in Charlottesville?

I didn’t think so. The violence and terror of the first Unite the Right march the previous year were still very fresh when the organizers announced their plans to reconvene in the capital — and the potential threat of this rally was taken extremely seriously. Members of the alt-right were denied lodging throughout the DC metro area while thousands of anti-fascist counter-protesters were welcomed, and the Governor of Virginia declared a state of emergency in anticipation.

In the end, the police escorted organizer Jason Kessler, his marchers — all 20 or so — via subway to Lafayette Square, in front of the White House, where Kessler made a 15-minute speech, and then they left — driven out by police vans this time, to protect them from the thousands of counter-protesters.

As nail-biting as the January 6 spectacle was, Trump’s supporters were never, realistically, going to do more than temporarily disrupt Congress’s confirmation of Biden’s victory; and terrorize those unfortunate enough to be in and around the building for a few hours.

Far more lasting — and absolutely successfully executed — is their reclamation of the Capitol Building, and with it other architectural symbols of US government power, as the symbols of white supremacy they were originally erected to be. This is what made it an act worth dying for.

In other words, this was the real successor march to the 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally, a replacement to the abortive “Unite the Right 2” of 2018. And we must contextualize it as such: not so much as about the supporters of a single head of government (“pro-Trump demonstrators”), but as a white supremacist demonstration of their ownership of public space. By filling these external and internal spaces with their bodies and flags, by processing through ceremonial landscapes of the Mall, breaking into the Capitol through smashed windows, and snapping selfies in Statuary Hall, they proved what one of the stormers said: “this is our house.” 

And by “ours,” they mean white people’s. 

Almost everyone has heard the sequence of incendiary statements Trump made to encourage the attack. But many seem to have missed how a recent executive order on “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture” — which enshrined the success of the 2017 “Unite the Right” in Charlottesville — also offered sanction for white men to reassert their ownership over the Capitol Building as not just a seat of government, but also arguably the most prominent example of the architectural style that was chosen during the Founding Era to mark the territory of the white settler colonial state. The executive order, which designates classical architecture as the “preferred architecture” for federal public buildings — promoting the white columns and triangular pediment that prominently characterize the Capitol Building, and appeared repeatedly in the live footage on January 6.  

Both when a draft version of the order was leaked in February 2020 (under the title “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again”), and when the signed version was released on December 21, architects and scholars mostly just mocked the folly of its reasoning, poked fun at the president’s architectural taste, and warned of the danger of government intervention in artistic decisions.

But none of their analyses addressed why Trump would return to this order, signing it during his final month in office. For that, we must look at what the mostly white commentators and practitioners of the white-dominated field of architecture are frankly unqualified and unable to see: this order is all about race and power. It aims to set in stone — and in federal government policy — the ultimate victory of the white nationalists who gathered at Charlottesville in 2017.

Of course, the order doesn’t openly acknowledge this purpose. It doesn’t even use the word “race.” But the justification it offers for requiring classical architectural style is framed in language and concepts that are staples of white supremacist rhetoric. The result is a chorus of dog whistles, readily recognizable to white nationalists. Its ultimate logic is that America’s public spaces must be dominated by Greek and Roman architecture in order to affirm that America — like these Mediterranean empires (per white supremacist doctrine) — is a nation made by and for white men.

In its final, official form, the order begins with a history lesson about how “societies” have historically considered it important to have beautiful public buildings — “societies” starting with the Greeks and Romans, naturally, and progressing through other European societies that have been recruited to serve as the white racial past, during the past two to three centuries. The order describes George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as heirs to this architectural tradition, establishing white columns and triangular pediments as the “regional architectural heritage” of many parts of this country.

In the eventful months between the leaked draft in February 2020 and the final, signed version in December 2020, the executive order took on a new significance. During the George Floyd uprisings, Black bodies occupied America’s public spaces — including the National Mall, and the sacred national processional routes such as the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue linking the Capitol to the White House — day after day, for months on end.

March in front of the Capitol building, June 7, 2020 (image by Amaury Laporte via Zenfolio, copyright © Amaury Laporte)

The marches and rallies manifested the empowerment of Black people every time they filled the parks and plazas in front of these white-columned buildings with their Black bodies, and with the sounds of chants affirming Black life. Although the neoclassical public buildings were rarely targeted directly, another ubiquitous representative of white heritage and white male power began to fall in quick succession: statues of white male colonizers and enslavers.

In response, white nationalists emerged to violently counter these actions, claiming that they were simply engaged in protecting their heritage, and that these statues represented “heritage, not hate” — a phrase they’ve used for decades to defend the official use of the Confederate flag on government property.

Meanwhile, the heritage industry fails to address or acknowledge how their work supports that of white supremacists. When white nationalists flocked to the streets of Charlottesville in August 2017 to protest the city’s decision to remove their statue of Robert E. Lee, and even murdered a counter-protester in their zeal to defend the statue, scholars and public historians tried to maintain a separation between America’s artistic and cultural heritage and white supremacy. For example, the statement released by the National Council on Public History, an association of American historians who work at and study museums and historic sites, immediately after the “Unite the Right” rally, referred to their study of “how notions of heritage are distorted to support racism.”

But pretending that “heritage” can only support racism if it is “distorted” is just plain dishonest at this point. Heritage and exclusion have always gone hand in hand. The prevailing concept of heritage in the United States one of descent-based ownership (hence the close relationship between “heritage” and “inheritance”). In order for one person to own something, they must have rights to it that others do not have. When heritage is made material in a public space, through a statue or a building or a flag, it makes the implicit claim that whoever owns that heritage also owns that space. Thus, when the alt-right protects symbols of whiteness in public space, they are not “distorting” heritage. They are defending it. They don’t want to lose the statues and buildings that are constant visual and physical enforcers of the idea that America is historically a country in which power has been held by white people.

The alt-right knows that this is why statues matter. And I think “we” do, too, though we hesitate to say it. In part, our hesitation to articulate it is due to the truly staggering implications of this realization, what it means, not only for statues but for many other elements that assert whiteness in America’s built environment — including the white columns exalted by this new executive order.

Claiming that white statues and white columns represent the whiteness of the United States is not a twisted innovation of 21st-century white supremacists. The idea that “classical antiquity” is the heritage of white Americans can be traced to the Revolutionary era, when white Americans began to obsessively overlay the ancient world onto their own. Ancient Greece and Rome offered the perfect heritage for white Americans, because they provided a model for righteous empire and civilized slave ownership. For example, Thomas Jefferson, who was also a Founding Father of American racial science, recruited these ancient civilizations in order to prove the inherent difference between white and Black people. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, he wrote about how the Greeks enslaved by the Romans still achieved greatness in art and science, claiming that it was because they were “of the race of whites,” and thus it is not enslavement “but nature, which has produced the distinction” between white and Black people. In other words, even if white people were subjected to the same treatment Jefferson inflicted upon the hundreds of Black people he enslaved, the inherent brilliance of the white race would still shine through.

The Founding Fathers also set these heritage claims in stone. Jefferson modeled the new Virginia state capitol building on a Roman temple he had seen in France. The style Jefferson established here, specifically the use of white columns with a triangular pediment, now appears in countless sites of public and private power in America, from churches, courthouses, museums, and banks to the White House and Capitol Building.

Virginia Capitol in 1860s, Richmond (image courtesy the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC)
Maison Carrée, in Nîmes, France (2005) (photo by ChrisO via Wikimedia)

So there is nothing distorted or illegitimate about the heritage claims made by today’s white supremacists. The buildings and statues they claim as white heritage today were in fact erected to represent just that — to set in stone the white male heritage of social, political, and economic power. These tools of heritage continue to do what they were initially designed to do. They convey the message of white male dominance to all who encounter the US American landscape, regardless of our racial backgrounds.

Perhaps this is most evident with Southern plantations. By the time of the Civil War, the consistent use of white-columned, classicizing architecture for plantation mansions was served as a concrete metaphor for group identity, a recurring physical reminder of the racial linkage white Americans claimed with ancient Greeks and Romans. White columns and triangular pediments became, in the language of this new executive order, a “regional architectural heritage.” Trump is trying to reinstate this practice of marking white heritage on the American landscape.

And this is where we really see what is at stake with this order. Many slave plantation mansions are now popular museums and wedding venues. The mostly white tourists and wedding celebrants are encouraged to imagine themselves in the elegant shoes of the plantation owners, linking modern white American identity to that of Southern slaveowners.

Dylann Roof, the young, white man who murdered nine Black people in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015, was one such tourist — one who fully understood the white racial superiority symbolized by the plantation landscape. On the website where he posted his manifesto explaining his motivations for the shooting, Roof also shared images of himself at sites of white heritage, including three plantations. One of these was Charleston’s McLeod Plantation, whose white columns and triangular pediment — a popular backdrop for wedding photographs — is a 15-minute drive from the historic Black church where Roof carried out his massacre.

Charleston, South Carolina, USA, 21st June, 2015, a photo from a white supremacist website showing Dylann Storm Roof posing at McLeod Plantation April 23, 2015 in Charleston, SC; Roof murdered nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in a racially motivated killing on June 17, 2015 in Charleston, S.C. (Credit: Planetpix/Alamy Live News)

While the South has mostly agreed to finally recognize that the Confederate flag Roof draped himself in is a symbol of hate, we have not even started the conversation about how “heritage” sites like McLeod Plantation are symbols of hate. The imagery of white heritage, which dominates both in our public architecture and statuary, advances an argument that is impervious to the social movements of the past several decades: This nation was created by white men and hence should be the property of white men. The events of January 6 make clear how much this vision of the US resides within our public architecture, even when we don’t consciously notice that it is there. President Biden’s work will not be done if he merely overturns the “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture executive order. A greater reckoning with white heritage in the American landscape is overdue.

Lyra Monteiro

Lyra D. Monteiro is an assistant professor of history and American studies and affiliate faculty in African American & African Studies at Rutgers University—Newark, and is director of the public...