The Big Bike Race™ and the Big Race Question

The UCI World Championships route includes a certain statue-studded avenue that’s become the focus of a lot of scrutiny.

On June 23rd, the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality–a social activism group led by Ana Edwards and Phil Wilayto–sent an open letter (PDF) to the four chairmen of the Richmond 2015 board.

The letter called on Mayor Dwight Jones, U.S. Senator Mark Warner, Governor Terry McAuliffe, and Dominion CEO Tom Farrell to change the route of the UCI Road World Championships bicycle race. In the very recent wake of the June 17th Dylann Roof murders in Charleston, Edwards and Wilayto worried about the harmful effects of showcasing Richmond’s Confederate-laden Monument Avenue to a global audience projected to number 300 million.

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“We said there would be three key things that we were looking at when planning the course: 1) competition element of it, 2) something that showcases Richmond, and 3) impact. Monument Avenue–there’s history to what’s there, but it’s also a beautiful place. It’s the only registered historical landmark that’s also a road. Before we announced the course, people who were into cycling had two major assumptions: you gotta do Church Hill and you gotta do Monument Avenue.” Lee Kallman to RVANews on August 18th, 2015

Richmond 2015 is the local organization in charge of bringing the global organization UCI’s race to town. It is not in charge of city infrastructure, public art, or Richmond tourism.

The four men listed (three politicians and a business executive) make up the board of Richmond 2015, and one of those men is the mayor of Richmond and another is the Governor of Virginia (which owns the Lee statue as a result of a racially motivated move in the 1970s). At least one of those men is very much in charge of city infrastructure, public art, and, to some degree, Richmond tourism. At least three of these men are Democrats. At least two of them are voted into office by a state that has a majorly blue segment up towards the north, and one of them leads a city made up of primarily African Americans.

While Richmond 2015 partners with the city to do its bike race thing, it is certainly not its job to decide the fate of Richmond’s Confederate symbols. To them, Monument Avenue is a pretty street with brick pavers–which give it a competitive challenge and a European feel. It’s also wide and used to hosting parties.

But, as Lee Kallman (VP of Marketing and Business Development for Richmond 2015) and Paul Shanks (Director of Communications and Digital Marketing for Richmond 20151) tell me, they also get to wield some influence over what the global media broadcasts, i.e. they can be like “Don’t focus on Robert E. Lee, please!”

So does Richmond 2015 they have a responsibility to cast Richmond in a more progressive light? Maybe, but probably not.

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“Rather than tearing down, we should be building up in ways that establish a proper sense of balance and fairness by recognizing heroes from all eras to tell a richer and more accurate story of Virginia’s history.” Mayor Dwight Jones to the Richmond Times-Dispatch on June 27th, 2015

“No, were aren’t gonna change any monuments or move the bike race.” Gov. Terry McAuliffe via WTVR on June 25th, 2015

Both Jones and McAuliffe have made statements that Monument Avenue is OK as it is, particularly where the bike race is concerned. The mayor is interested in “building it up,” which implies that–while he’d prefer to add more diverse monuments to the avenue–the vibe it currently produces is inoffensive, if incomplete2.

It’s not at all impossible to imagine that both of those will change their tune later on (New Orleans and Memphis are bringing their statues down, after all), but for now, the route stays in place.

For the record, there has been at least one route change since the Charleston shootings in June, so if the board’s minds HAD changed in the interim but found themselves with too little time to make any physical alterations to Monument Avenue, it theoretically could have been done.

Refusing to admit the avenue’s problems–Edwards and Wilayto worry–leaves us open to the global media characterizing Richmond as a place in which racist roots are still clung to.

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“Virginia is the place where that really culminates, this was the capital of the Confederacy for a reason, then it became the center place of the Lost Cause for a reason. These things are not incidental, this was intentional.” — Ana Edwards to RVANews on August 12th, 2015

Perhaps a global media portrayal of our city as one in which its privileged citizens celebrate racism is, in fact, accurate.

When we first began posting about it over here, I believed that Richmonders truly want to provide a welcoming city and do not want to be represented by things that symbolize hatred towards many. The feedback we (and all the other media outlets) got from some of the loudest readers3 made me realize that…whoa, that is not the case. All sorts of people are not interested in bridging racial divides or recognizing inherent cultural racism within themselves and getting rid of it. It made me want to give up.

So maybe it’s a good thing that the global media, when wandering around town looking for some more story angles, will take notice of all of our symbols and ask us some questions to make us think. Maybe under the microscope, some of the people on the fence will squirm. Maybe seeing it all from an outsider’s perspective will be good for us.

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“To have a story [like the Boston Globe] that explained a lot of those dynamics between two places as remote from each other as Boston, Massachussetts and Richmond, Virginia–they’re directly tied together by slavery and by the fundamental contradictions that we’re playing out as result of it. … I think every step of the way we have more and more people finding the space to acknowledge their feelings about this history. It means it’s going to be difficult for us for awhile, but it’s extremely important that people are finding the place and the space to talk about those things out loud.” Ana Edwards to RVANews on August 12th, 2015

While outside scrutiny may push some moderates, it will also almost certainly exacerbate the die-hard defenders who have chosen this cause to espouse.

“What do we care about what the Boston Globe thinks about us?” I heard a few people say after that paper interviewed Edwards.

Let’s say you don’t give two figs for the opinion of the rest of the country. That’s an opinion that actively works against the city’s economic interest. We have a tourism board to bring in travelers because it’s good for our economy. We’re bringing in this massive sporting event because it gets our name out there so as to bring in travelers because it’s good for our economy. And, as many pro-monument people say in their arguments, we tout the magnetic power of the monuments as a big, fat tourism draw because it brings in travelers because it’s good for our economy. But what happens when these travelers start to view the monuments less as a symbol of grand Southern history and more as a symbol of grand Southern historical hate?

If your answer is, “We don’t want those kinds of people. Boston Globe type of people,” then who exactly do you mean? People who are scared of the fact that, by the very act of erecting these monuments, Richmond citizens celebrated the racist violence that these men represented–and many of Richmond’s citizens seem to be determined to still celebrate it? Or people like my star student 16-year-old niece who came to visit from Maryland (Maryland! A former slave-holding state!) and was really weirded out by the monuments, the hoopla surrounding Jefferson Davis’s grave, and the fact that Lumpkin’s Jail was only marked by a little plaque? Stay out, future generations! You’re not welcome here.

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“[If you’re a White person], every time you’re with White people and they say something racist you have to call them on it. It’s extremely uncomfortable but you have to do it. If you’re in a situation where someone’s making a decision–in a corporate situation, in a law enforcement situation, in a community group–it’s your responsibiity to speak up, or you’re part of the problem.” — Phil Wilayto to RVANews on August 12th

From the Richmond 2015 point of view, there can be no real answer to the question except a defense of the route as a solid one. Their board, essentially, didn’t respond to the open letter (Warner and McAuliffe both sent form letters back, but nothing from Mayor Jones or Tom Farrell). This is unsurprising on two levels: 1) an open letter isn’t written to get a response from its addressee, necessarily, but it definitely is written to get a reaction from media (and here we are, reacting).

And 2) what would the response say? “You’re right, we take back everything we’ve said, let’s make a change.”

But some could argue that the letter has had its intended effect and is therefore successful, even if no response was given. Edwards and Wilayto predict that sooner or later, the national publicity brought by the bike race will cause both Mayor Jones and Governor McAuliffe to regret their milquetoast stances on the subject and the quotes that came out of them4.

After all, some of the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s most respected columnists came out against the monuments after the Dylann Roof shootings. The traditionally conservative newspaper took a big leap in doing so, and Wilayto and Edwards were buoyed by the RTD’s position. Surely, the tide is turning, but not soon enough to change the backdrop of possibly the biggest sporting event that Richmond will see–or that we will ever see.

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I genuinely like Kallman, Shanks, Wilayto, and Edwards, and all four are working very hard with a lot of passion in their chosen fields. They’re not on opposite sides of an argument–this is merely where their paths intersect. The Defenders’ real beef is with the city and the state governments, and neither of those gave the Big Bike Race™ crew a break by changing anything about Monument Avenue before it was scheduled to appear on global television. Taking the monuments down is the most obvious and sensational example of change, but there are lots of other things that could have been done in the couple of months between the open letter and the race: plaques, signs, something to show that we have thought about the possible effects of these controversial men on pedestals.

So what now? In September, we as Richmonders can use the opportunity to discuss this stuff with people who are visiting Richmond from all over the world. We can be examples of 2015 humans and not of 1815 or even 1915 humans.

We can show them what kind of city we want, despite what the guys on the monuments wanted our city to be.

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Want to hear more from Ana Edwards? Want to ask her some questions and get some answers? Want to hear her answers to other people’s questions? You should absolutely come to RVANews Live #004 — Out with the Old. She’ll be there, having a moderated discussion with us about monuments, racism, and more! Will YOU be there on September 10th at 5:30 sharp at Visual Arts Center? Buy your ticket today!

  1. Patient dudes, by the way. 
  2. If a thing is offensive to a big swath of people, saying it is inoffensive is factually untrue. And spectacularly arrogant, but that’s beside the point. 
  3. I’m not entirely sure most of them were readers, just internet trollers about this very issue. 
  4. As far as I could find, Tom Farrell hasn’t given a statement about the monuments on the route. I contacted his office but could not reach him for comment. 
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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. Josh on said:

    This is a well put together article and outline of the position of people that think the statues are offensive, but there’s just something about this whole issue that feels weird. Regarding the footnote about something being offensive to a large amount of people…I feel like the people to whom this is offensive are, indeed, surrounded by people that think it is offensive, but also exist within a feedback loop of people that agree with them.

    I studied politics in college and worked in politics during and after college; being surrounded by politically minded people a lot, we were always surprised when the average person didn’t have an opinion one way or the other on a lot of topics. This seems like the same type of issue…outside of the people that have chosen to invest in this topic, whether by writing about it, protesting about it, or otherwise being vocal about it, it just seems like most people have blase opinions about it. The statues don’t actually make anyone racist, they don’t cause a non-racist to start hating people, they just exist, and to many people are essentially works of art that are just ~there~ and nothing more. You drive by them and don’t even think about them. Is that horrible?

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