- screengrab via youtube
- screengrab via youtube
Yale University announced last week that it would retain the name of Calhoun College, one of its 12 residential colleges. The college was named for John C. Calhoun, a 19th-century alumnus who was a fervent supporter of slavery.
The decision set off an angry response from students on campus, who condemned the decision at an intense university-sponsored town hall last Thursday.
But one prominent race-relations expert doesn’t think Yale made a mistake in its decision to keep Calhoun’s name on the college.
While removing the name would have been Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy‘s “preference,” he told Business Insider recently, he could “respect the decision [Yale] made.”
“People speak as if you keep John C. Calhoun’s name, that means you’re indifferent to the legacy of racism,” he continued. “I don’t believe that. I think that there are people who embrace the idea of keeping his name who are deeply concerned with the legacy of slavery and racism and want to do things to address that legacy.”
Kennedy, who has written five books about race in America,explained that he thought in “addition, not subtraction,” when grappling with historical legacies mired in racism. He said it was possible to retain the name Calhoun and change the meaning of that name.
“I think that it is important for people to understand that symbols can mean lots of different things,” he said. “It’s not as if a symbol has to mean what it was intended to mean at the beginning.”
Kennedy’s response to Yale’s decision is vastly different from the one that has been prominently vocalized on campus and elsewhere. OnTwitter, the hashtags #wrongmoveYale and #formerlyknownasCalhoun began trending, disparaging the decision.
David Blight, a respected Civil War historian and professor at Yale, also disagreed with Yale’s defense of its decision to retain Calhoun as an educational tool, calling it “absolute nonsense,” according to the Yale Daily News.
But Kennedy aims to probe at something deeper. He believes that when people focus extreme attention on specific individuals with repugnant ideas about slavery, they become “insufficiently attentive” to the fact that society in general was immensely racist.
“If we’re talking about the Antebellum America, it was a slave society for God’s sake,” he said.
“Should it come at all as a surprise that all of these institutions have part of their wealth linked to slavery?” he asked. “Of course not. Slavery was all around; it was so deep; it was so pervasive; it was so important to the country that it’s naive to think it wasn’t all around. The question becomes what do we do with that?”
— DOWN Magazine (@DOWNatYale) April 28, 2016
Therein may lie some of the issue for members of the Yale community so opposed to keeping Calhoun’s name.
“Yale does not currently have the resources to teach this painful history,” Yale sophomore Julianna Simms said at the town hall, according to the Yale Daily News. “We are hemorrhaging qualified, caring faculty of color.”
Racial tensions boiled over on Yale’s New Haven, Connecticut, campus last year, exposing feelings that Yale provided an unwelcoming environment for students of color and that pervasive racism existed.