Blunt Instruments: Recognizing Racist Cultural Infrastructure in Memorials, Museums, and Patriotic Practices

Beacon. Nov. 2022. 288p. ISBN 9780807006719. $25.95. SOC SCI
In this impassioned book, Hass (American culture, Univ. of Michigan; Sacrificing Soldiers on the National Mall) reveals the racism embedded in the United States’ monuments, museums, and customs. Her analyses of innocuous-seeming symbols (a courthouse statue of the World War I Doughboy; a museum’s “primitive art” collection; the national anthem at a baseball game) reveal that a good deal of effort has gone into hiding their message of white supremacy. These everyday affirmations of racial hierarchy, as Hass calls them, have a history. For example, Civil War memorials mostly proliferated 30 or so years after the war had ended, strengthening Jim Crow in the face of heightened immigration. Despite efforts to tell contrasting stories—as with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982) and the numerous museums of African American art and history founded since the 1960s—narratives of racial hierarchy persist. Hass anchors this history with guiding principles (“cultural infrastructure is often motivated by collective anxiety”) and corresponding questions (“what past was being invented and for whom?”); the book falters only when these signposts interrupt her compelling examples and deft interpretations.
VERDICT Hass offers a powerful exposé of the persistence of race in the ongoing public dialogue about citizenship and belonging.
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