Renaming Buildings and Removing Mascots Doesn’t Cure Racism
Should ‘Lord Jeff’ be removed as Amherst’s unofficial mascot because of his racism? Does the vogue for eradicating and renaming mascots and buildings really educate us?
Lord Jeffery Amherst was horrible to Native Americans. The British general encouraged the attempts to spread Smallpox to the tribes his troops faced in the summer of 1763 during the French and Indian War, and he referred to Native Americans as “this execrable race.”
No institution makes Amherst’s reprehensible treatment of Native Americans clearer than Amherst College, the picturesque and prestigious liberal arts college in Massachusetts.
Under the college’s FAQs section, number four reads (in an almost chatty teen voice):
I’ve heard that Lord Jeffery Amherst distributed smallpox-infected blankets to the Indians during the French and Indian War. True?
The answer then proceeds to explain with clear and detailed references to Amherst’s letters during the war that while it is not clear that Amherst ordered biological warfare against Native Americans, he advocated attempts to infect them with the deadly virus via blankets—even though it is “highly unlikely that the tactic caused any infection.”
Amherst College by no means lets Amherst the man off easily—but that hasn’t stopped some students for pushing to have him removed as the (unofficial) school mascot.
Lord Jeff is the established nickname and effective mascot for Amherst College (even though it is named for the town of Amherst—not technically for the man himself).
But as the New York Times reported this weekend, a group of students are pushing for a change.
Having a mascot that “isolates people and makes anyone feel unwelcome is just unacceptable,” as senior Virginia Hassell told the Times.
Amherst is hardly the only U.S. institute of higher education grappling with mascots, monuments, and buildings that pay tribute to less than politically correct figures.
As the Times article noted, Yale University is contemplating renaming Calhoun College because, in addition to being a renowned orator, John Calhoun was ardently pro-slavery.
In August, University of Texas at Austin decided to remove a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from a prominent public spot on campus to inside a building center for U.S. history.
Four years earlier, the school renamed the dormitory Simkins Hall because its namesake, William Simkins, played a leading role in establishing the Klu Klux Klan in Florida.
There are many other examples of this removal and renaming on college campuses as students become increasingly aware of the fact that many if not most, of America’s most prominent leaders who were inimitably instrumental to the development of the country were also horribly racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and—if they even gave an iota of thought to LGBT people—homophobic by today’s standards.
“We periodically have these struggles over politics on campus,” explained Alfred L. Brophy to the Daily Beast.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill law professor specializes in how the South grapples with its slavery and segregated history and he has written about the recent renaming debates.
“In the 1960s, we saw a push for African American studies and critiques of the curriculum. In the 1970s, we began to see the first Confederate monuments removed. In the post-Obama election, students have looked even more seriously at monuments. There have been so many renamings now that it is hard to keep track of, which suggests this is part of a larger movement.”
Brophy’s own UNC, along with nearby Duke and Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, have or are in the midst of renaming discussions. But, as the current debates at Amherst and Yale show, these conflicts and debates on campuses are hardly limited to the South.
There are already calls to “expunge Woodrow Wilson from places of honor,” as Randy Barnett, a Georgetown Law professor, wrote in an oped published on the Washington Post’s website.
The Woodrow Wilson Schools of Public Affairs and International Relations is fifth in the nation of public affairs graduate programs, and responsible for producing research and leaders that have resulted in policies that have brought immeasurably good.
Would the school’s contributions be magnified if Wilson—a horrendous racist who completely betrayed African American activist W.E.B. DuBois’ support and happily perpetuated segregation—was scrubbed from it?
Maybe at this rate it’s only a matter of time before there’s a push to remove Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s name from structures which bear his name.
We are increasingly grappling with the fact that the Roosevelt, one of the most beloved U.S. presidents, also oversaw and issued some horrendous measures.
He ordered tens of thousands of his own citizens to be interned in camps because they were of Japanese origin.
For good measure, he blocked a boat of Jews fleeing the Holocaust from entering the U.S., and said in 1943 that he felt there were “understandable complaints which the Germans bore towards the Jews.”
In short, Roosevelt was responsible for grave racist and anti-Semitic measures that destroyed thousands of lives. Should we rename the multiple high schools, major New York highway, and public policy institute named in his honor? And if so, would that rewrite the wrongs of his past?
The more socially accepting we commendably become, the more we realize how much our treasured national figures erred and excluded our countrymen. No one will ever stand perfect in the eyes of history, especially if their reputations are seen through a thoroughly modern lens.
Brophy spoke about how he believes that the next century will bring far greater and disturbing awareness about animal slaughtering.
“In a hundred years, will that next generation vilify us for eating meat?,” he said. “That’s why we need to capture nuance rather than moral absolutes. People want to get out the sandblaster, but it’s important to understand the context in which a person was acting and that kind of nuance.”
That doesn’t mean that some renaming is right-minded.
Brophy brought up how UNC changed the name of Saunders Hall, which was named for William L. Saunders, a notorious KKK leader.
“I think the turning point was when we reread the Board of Trustees minutes from 1921 [when the decision to name it for Saunders was made] and it included among his accomplishments that he was the head of the Klan in the state. After you realized they named the building for him because he was a great Klansman, you realize the name has got to go,” Brophy said.
Context and details are key for each situation.
“Nuance is needed for a lot of arguments liberals want to make,” said Brophy. “The people who most want nuance in the arena of social welfare are the ones who want it erased when it comes to renaming and removing monuments. It’s the liberal version of the conservative argument: ‘Slavery was a long time ago; get over it.’ This thinking is moral absolutism: ‘That person was a racist, and that’s it.’”
Within that difficult weighing and measuring is, for me, the realization that just because someone does horrible things doesn’t mean removing them and their accomplishments. This consideration must also be taken into account when it comes to the renaming debate.
I do support changing the name of the NFL team the Washington Redskins because “Redskins” is a racist slur. Moreover, continuing to treat the image of a Native American as a mere mascot perpetuates the dehumanization of an entire ethnic group.
I don’t support scrapping the Lord Jeff mascot because it is not in the same category of racial offense. Although Lord Jeffrey Amherst is a historic figure who should be severely scrutinized and criticized, I don’t think the continued use of his shortened name—-sans a stereotyped image of Native Americans or any racial epithet—perpetuates potential racism against Native Americans the way Redskins does.
There is even an argument for learning to keeping names intact. Expunging and renaming all but encourages us to gloss over the ugly histories of our heroes and our country than grapple with the complex questions around racism and patriarchal privilege.
Brophy gave an example of how in 2007, Yale University took down a portrait of the school’s namesake, Elihu Yale, that depicted him being served by a young black slave in chains.
By all available accounts, Yale did not actually own slaves—and that was part of the reason for the removal.
“Since the portrait is confusing without the explanation [that Elihu Yale did not own slaves], I have decided it would be prudent to exchange that portrait of Elihu to another one in the University’s collection,” Yale’s Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer said at the time. It was replaced with a portrait that did not include Yale with any slaves.
“It was taken down because it improperly represented Yale’s history because it dishonored its founder—not because it dishonored African Americans,” Brophy said. “It’s a perfect example of how the removal of monuments and the renaming of places can facilitate forgetting.”
That, he said, is the biggest problem with the overall renaming logic on campuses.
“It’s a big issue on campus for a year and then you can check the box to say you’ve dealt with racism. It’s not doing the hard work of education,” said Brophy. “Once you do the renaming, everyone forgets.”