Thursday, September 13, 2018

Changing Names

There is a current trend that if a public monument or building is named after someone who we learn was actually a racist, that we should rename it after some more current "good" person.  San Francisco has renamed several streets and a couple of high schools on this basis, and it's related to the urge in parts of the southeastern U.S. to remove statues memorializing the Confederacy.

This is a mistake, and it's stupid.  Frankly, many of our ancestors (yes, I include mine) were racist, and bigoted.  This country was founded economically on racism - the rich economy of the Old South was based on the labor of African slaves, which was justified by a misreading of the Bible.  If you doubt me that it was based on the Bible, read the secession statements of several Confederate states, especially Texas, which make it brutally clear.  Further, this country was expanded on the backs of all the Native Americans we murdered, or gave syphilis or measles to (probably not deliberately); and the transcontinental railroad which tied the country together was built by immigrant Chinese laborers, whom we later prohibited from living here by the Chinese Exclusion Act.

I won't say the racism wasn't our ancestors' fault; I will say they came by it honestly.  Most of the original white settlers in the U.S. came from the British Isles - now the United Kingdom.  Before the 20th century (and for that matter during much of it), Europeans (including the British) honestly believed that people of color were generally inferior to the "white race;" there was a formal hierarchy of races, and some actually believed that they derived genetically from separate origins than white people (see Wikipedia on Scientific Racism, which says that scientific racism was only formally denounced, by UNESCO, after World War II).

So our bigoted ancestors were honored by naming things after them because during their time, bigotry was normal.  Why, then, is renaming buildings and taking down Confederate monuments a mistake?  The Confederate monuments, especially, represent the Old South's cry of victory in establishing the Jim Crow regime.  Why should we memorialize that?

All this renaming allows us to blind ourselves to where we came from.  It lets us pretend, as our schools largely do pretend to our children, that America is a wonderful place with opportunity for all, and that we wouldn't discriminate against anybody.

That is a lie.  America over its history has been a wonderful place with opportunity for some white men; in the beginning, only for white men who owned property.  Over the intervening two and a half centuries, we've gradually expanded the opportunities to other white men (poor men, Irish men, southern European men, Catholic men), to African slaves (Reconstruction tried to do that but was summarily squashed for another 50 years until the Civil Rights movement, see my comments about the Confederate monuments), eventually to the Chinese.  Oh, and to women, who slowly stopped being their husbands' property, and became able to own property themselves, but who couldn't vote until 1920.

If we let ourselves forget how nasty our forebears were, we risk falling back into the same ways.  If you don't know where you came from, how can you focus on where you want to go?  I've written before about tribalism (Hating the Other, Sept. 2010); I see racial bigotry as an outgrowth of tribal attitudes, where "the other" is a threat to the tribe's hunting grounds and other food sources, going back millennia, before agriculture.

We must remember that we have these tendencies, so we can fight to overcome them, especially in the midst of a major recurrence of bigotry and intolerance.  So we should leave Boalt Hall named after the man who backed the Chinese Exclusion Act, but also put up a plaque explaining about his racism.  (The linked article may be behind a paywall, but this one isn't.)  And we should leave up the Confederate monuments, but add a plaque explaining that they represent, not victory in the Civil War, but a successful movement to reduce the South's African-American residents to a state as close to actual slavery as possible.

If we are continually reminded of our bigoted past, we may some day be able to decide, collectively, that racism is a waste of time and energy.  Science tells us that there are no significant genetic differences among the races.  Do we really want to keep arguing about skin color??