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??


  1. The renaming movement has troubled me too.

    The Civil War tore America apart. Lincoln knew that in order to keep the states together, there had to be a decisive squelching of the rebellion, one that would put paid to any fragmentation of the whole. The South was badly beaten, and its culture and economy devastated.

    Today we Northerners look back with condescension at that slave culture and feel very superior and pompous that our forbears didn't share that huge error. It's very comfortable to criticize a world you didn't live in, didn't grow up inside of, didn't inherit.

    The ordinary Southerner today inherits the legacy of defeat, of bitterness, of shame. How would anyone feel, given those burdens?

    Yes, bigotry is ugly, and prejudice and bias are deeply troubling. But when you are born into, grow up inside of, and share a resentment and indignation with your neighbors and friends, it's a part of you, and if you are forced to relive those emotions, you lose face to yourself. Faulkner has been criticized for saying that racial prejudice might take 200 years to root out. But he was right. Resentments born of civil conflict become mythic and subconscious. It takes imagination and determination to learn to accept something that your ancestors died to defeat.

    We owe the South the respect we accord to any people, the respect we pay to foreigners, of acknowledging their history--not necessarily a history we would have admired, but simply because it's THEIRS, and to deny their history is to insult who they are.

    We don't tell the Italians to tear down the ancient Roman ruins. We don't tell the Chinese to tear down the Great Wall. Why should we tell the South to drag down their statues of Robert E. Lee? By any standard, Lee was a great military leader, who happened to choose the wrong side of a conflict. But demonizing Lee, condemning him for that choice, makes no sense.

    And there is the matter of cultural memory. If we deliberately destroy the evidences of our own past, we risk forgetting what actually happened. This is true, for instance, of Native American monuments. Would anyone say that the Indians of Montana or Idaho should be punished for following their own leaders into battle against the Whites? As a matter of fact, that's just what our government did, in seeking to snuff out "Indian" culture by suppressing it and teaching its children to join the greater American society.

    1. Thanks, Curtis. We approached this from somewhat different angles but I think we agree on the principle. And your points about the "northern" attitude toward southerners is valid. For the record, my genealogy studies indicate that one entire side of my family history (my father's) came from the South. The other side is Canadian.

    2. Hedera: Insofar as I can determine, my mother's people were all Scandinavian (or possibly Northern German), while those on my biological Father's (John Calef) are English. A famous forbear in colonial New England authored a pamphlet against the persecution of witches, something I've always been proud to reference. All were Northerners, on the Union side.