this season of turbulence, Americans have been thrust into a national
discussion on racism. As a result, Americans are increasingly
opening their eyes to the negative symbolism undergirding many of our
institutions. This has caused an examination of the names, insignias
and icons of an unequal and unjust past.
the use of symbols, society makes a statement concerning its past,
present and future values. In the process, the U.S. reinforces to
the world - and to ourselves - its priorities and
aspirations. We reach back into history and present the living with
our immortal heroes, and provide past evidence of our enduring
beliefs, just as we offer lessons to future generations on the type
of nation we hope to become.
outgrowth of the debate over racial injustice has been the effort to
rename monuments with racially offensive names, faces or
connotations, and to replace symbols that have reflected a painful,
objectionable and often unacknowledged legacy. A most potent example
is the removal of the Confederate rebel flag over the South Carolina
state capitol in July of this year, following the Charleston
massacre. Southern states had resurrected the flag - an emblem
glorifying slavery and domestic terrorism - in defiance of the
U.S. Supreme Court desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of
recently, university campuses have become a battleground over
timeworn symbols that embody the promotion of racial injustice as a
Law School has formed a committee to examine
the continued use of its seal, which is the family
crest of Isaac Royall Jr., who owned dozens of slaves and made his
wealth through the slave trade. At Harvard Law, where
portraits of all of the African-American professors were vandalized
in recent weeks, one portrait which remained unscathed was that of
U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. Author of the
seminal 1857 Dred Scott v. Sanford decision, Taney wrote that
blacks "had no rights which the white man
was bound to respect."
at Yale University - whose campus has been embroiled in conflict amid
charges of racial insensitivity - have called for the renaming of
Calhoun College, a residential undergraduate college named for John
C. Calhoun. The seventh vice president of the U.S., who served as a
secretary of state, secretary of war, a U.S. Senator and a member of
Congress, Calhoun was an ardent supporter of slavery who called the
dreaded institution a “positive good.”
a group of Princeton students called the Black Justice League staged
a sit-in in the office of the university’s president
Christopher Eisgruber, demanding diversity and inclusion reforms,
including the removal of the name and imagery of Woodrow Wilson from
all university buildings and institutions. President Wilson was
virulently racist, even for his day. Under his leadership at
Princeton, not a single black student was enrolled. After he was
elected president, Wilson segregated the federal government,
declaring: ”There are no government positions for Negroes in
the South. A Negro’s place in the corn field.” A
defender of the Ku Klux Klan, he enthusiastically approved of the
film The Birth of a Nation, screening it at the White House
and declaring: "It is like writing history with lightning, and
my only regret is that it is all so terribly true."
are playing a role in removing these offensive symbols as well. Rep.
Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) introduced a bill to remove the name of J.
Edgar Hoover from the FBI Building. “The civil rights we enjoy
today are in spite of J. Edgar Hoover, not because of him,” said
Cohen. “Given his well-documented abuses and prejudices
towards African Americans, gays, and lesbians, I believe it is past
time to remove his name from this place of honor.” As FBI
director, Hoover engaged in the surveillance, infiltration,
discrediting and disruption of civil rights groups, and the
destruction of black leaders through his COINTELPRO program. On
December 4, 1969, the FBI conspired with the Chicago Police
Department and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office
to assassinate the charismatic Black Panther leader Fred Hampton,
killed in his home in a hail of 90 bullets.
state Sen. Ted Kennedy, Jr. (D-Conn.) called for the renaming of a
state landmark - a navigational buoy called “Negro
Heads” - on the grounds that the moniker is racist, and
times have changed.
protesters, who face institutional discrimination and inequity on
campus, seek justice and a reckoning with a troubled past. Critics
are shortsighted to dismiss these students and characterize them as
politically correct whiners - overly-sensitive and over the
top - and claim that somehow, the achievements of problematic
historical figures trump their misdeeds.
racism thrives because of the badge of slavery, which criminalizes
and dehumanizes black people, and renders them inferior in the eyes
of society. This badge brands African-Americans as deserving less
than that which full citizenship bestows. Eradicating institutional
racism requires removing the badge, along with the old symbols of
oppression that have been so ingrained as to become normalized.
are being challenged - if not compelled - to examine systemic racism
and white privilege, and the inequities of the justice system, in
policing, on college campuses and in other facets of society. If we
are diligent, we may find ourselves further down a hard road to
reassessing many of the nation’s practices, customs and
institutions in a new light and with a new perspective, and placing
ourselves on the road to reform - and for the better.