How to Deal with Racial Tension on College Campuses without Erasing History

Over the past few weeks, protests at Yale, Georgetown, and Princeton highlighted the racist tendencies of some of the school’s most important alumni and contributors, many who had buildings and schools named after them. Students are now demanding that colleges change the name of these monuments to the school’s forbearers.

At Yale, protests erupted over changing the name of a residential community, Calhoun College, which bears the name of John C. Calhoun, an ardent proponent of slavery in the early 1800s. Georgetown students successfully lobbied the administration to rename both Mulledy Hall and McSherry Hall, two buildings named after slaveowners.

Meanwhile, Princeton is struggling over whether to remove President Woodrow Wilson’s name from the School of Public and International Affairs and acknowledge the ways that Wilson actively promoted segregationist policies in the federal government.

At root in these debates is the way that structural racism continues to operate and exclude black students on many of these campuses.

In the New Yorker, Joshua Rothman points out the complexity in renaming these buildings because while these people will not be forgotten because they are important figures, “at the same time they remind us of a history we’d rather forget.”

While much ink has been spilled on both sides of the debate, it is helpful to think of the ways other societies have dealt with monuments to controversial or reviled figures as a possible guide.

At Columbia University’s conference on the “Politics of Memory” earlier this month, Annelise Finney presented a paper on just this topic. Finney explained that in Paraguay, a prominent statute of Alfredo Stroessner, the military dictator from 1954-1989, was not torn down or discarded after he was removed from power. Rather, an artist appropriated the statute, making a new work of art that tore up the pieces of the military statute and placed it in the Plaza de los Desaparecidos, or Plaza of the Disappeared, devoted to those who were killed or disappeared during Strossner’s long rule.

In this way, Paraguay is not erasing a past they would rather forget, but honoring their country’s complicated history. The piece provides a spur for conversation and remembrance of the nation’s dark period.

Similarly, in South Africa, streets that were named after Apartheid era leaders have been renamed after those who resisted them, or at times, were killed in the process. However, rather than just replace the signs, the streets in Pretoria are crossed out in red and new signs with the current names are affixed underneath.

While this helps reduce traffic confusion for longtime residents, it is also a process where South Africa remembers its racist and complex past while also respecting a need to distance state-sanctioned tributes to those figures.

In Slate’s political gabfast last month, Emily Bazelon explained that the danger in removing names from buildings at U.S. universities is that the move will fail to provide for a reckoning and remembrance with the past, no matter how bad that history may be. Erasure can mean forgetting, and while slaveowners’ history is contemptible, it is still part of how the university was founded and needs to provide the basis for a discussion moving forward.

What Paraguay and South Africa offer is a way forward in this process. Woodrow Wilson certainly has a mixed legacy, but forgetting the myriad of ways he shaped Princeton does a disservice to the university he devoted himself to.

Instead, perhaps these universities can learn from the ways other societies have dealt with their complex histories, and allow a space to continue to learn from the parts of their history’s they might rather forget.