Commentary / World

Honor the past, not the racism

by Stephen L. Carter


Recently the Democratic Party of West Virginia announced the date of its annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, so I suppose the state’s Democrats aren’t joining the rush to dump the name.

Good for them.

All over the country, local party groups are busily renaming the traditional fundraiser, on the ground that one of its eponyms was a slaveholder and believer in black inferiority, and the other, who also held slaves, has the blood of thousands of American Indians on his hands. I have no brief for either Thomas Jefferson or Andrew Jackson (although I do retain a certain old-fashioned affection for that Declaration thing), but I’m worried that the relabeling business is getting out of hand. It’s one thing to pressure the Southern states to stop displaying the Confederate battle flag in ways that honor the horribly destructive war to preserve slavery. It’s something else to seek to write all the racist baddies out of the nation’s history.

Yet having started down this road, we can’t seem to find the brakes. Public schools named for Robert E. Lee are considering whether to make a switch. Yale University, where I teach, is inviting conversation on whether to drop “Calhoun” as the name of one of its residential colleges. Two members of Congress have even argued that Donald Trump should not be allowed to name his new Washington hotel after himself, lest we “send a message of exclusion and intolerance to millions of Latinos.”

Such a sentiment flows from genuine pain. Words can wound. So can history. The historian David Day has taught us about the importance of naming in figuring out who’s conquered whom. Yet at a certain point, we are no longer removing the worst traces of atrocities past. We are sanitizing the record entire. And once we admit that the impulse is legitimate, it’s hard to see where to stop.

Consider Shockley’s Ceiling, a celebrated climbing roof in New York’s Shawangunk Mountains. Although rated only a moderate 5.6, the roof has been called “thoroughly intimidating on first look,” and is a favorite among enthusiasts. The trouble is that it’s named for William Shockley, the inveterate climber who in the early 1950s led the first ascent. That’s the same William Shockley who won the Nobel Prize in physics, but late in life developed views on race and intelligence that many consider racist. Is it time to call the namesake ceiling something else?

Then there’s the prestigious PEN/Faukner Award given annually for the best American fiction. Accusations of racism have long clouded the reputation of the great novelist, and these days even William Faulkner’s admirers concede that the critics aren’t entirely wrong. Is PEN/Faulkner celebrating racism if it doesn’t change its name?

Or take the case of Planned Parenthood, which each year gives an award named for Margaret Sanger, leading light of the U.S. birth control movement. Sanger has been accused of racism in her enthusiasm for reducing the population of those who, as she told Vassar students in 1926, did not fall into “the normal and intelligent classes.”

Planned Parenthood has sharply defended Sanger, but she’s the one who warned that we must not “abandon the garden to the weeds.” If Sanger was unaware, in the midst of the eugenics movement, that such a reference was a code word for immigrants and nonwhites, she must have been the only public intellectual quite so naive.

In short, one could easily make a case that Planned Parenthood should rename the award after someone else. But if we’re going to erase from the record all the serious eugenicists, we’d better come up with new names for any school that honors Helen Keller, Theodore Roosevelt, or Alexander Graham Bell. And let’s not get started on the genteel racist Woodrow Wilson, who instituted racial segregation in the federal civil service. In short, we’re rushing down the relabeling road with only the haziest notion of where we might wind up.

All of which brings us back to those now unnamed Democratic fundraising dinners. Missouri has redesignated its event to honor native son Harry Truman. Maybe the party of inclusion can justify its celebration of the man whose orders to drop the atomic bombs incinerated tens of thousands of Japanese noncombatants, and who later explained “when you deal with a beast, you have to treat him as a beast.”

But there’s still the difficulty of explaining away this 1911 comment: “I think one man is just as good as another so long as he’s honest and decent and not” black or Chinese (not the words Truman used, but I’m not allowed to repeat those slurs here). He continued, “Uncle Wills says that the Lord made a white man from dust, a [black man] from mud, and then threw what was left and it came down a [Chinese]. He does hate Chinese and [Japanese]. So do I.”

One might reply that Truman, the grandson of slave owners, was young then — he was 27 — and that his views changed. To put the same point the other way around, the Truman of 1911 was very much a product of his times. But here’s the thing: so are the rest of us.

Jefferson or Jackson, Truman or Wilson, Sanger or Faulkner — all held unworthy attitudes shaped by the values of particular eras. We should accept and explore our history, with all of its complexity and horror, including the possibility that we can admire some aspects of the greats of the past without endorsing everything for which they stood. If instead we’d rather spend time on erasure, there’s a nice domed memorial on the National Mall that needs a new honoree — in a capital city itself named for a man who owned 318 human beings.

Stephen L. Carter, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a professor of law at Yale University, where he teaches courses on contracts, professional responsibility, ethics in literature, intellectual property, and the law and ethics of war.

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