The Chronicle Review

Removing Racist Symbols Isn’t a Denial of History

Rodger Bosch, AFP, Getty Images

After it was defaced by protesting students at the U. of Cape Town, a statue of Cecil Rhodes, who helped create the apartheid system of South Africa, was removed from the campus.
January 08, 2016

Across the world, campus symbols from the epoch of avowed white supremacy have come under sharp criticism from students and their allies.

At the University of Cape Town, academically the highest-ranked institution in Africa, a "Rhodes Must Fall" campaign last year compelled the removal of a monument to Cecil Rhodes, the diamond-mining baron, British imperialist, and progenitor of South Africa’s system of apartheid. Students splattered the statue with buckets of excrement and paint.

Emboldened by Cape Town, students in England — their organizers originating from formerly colonized regions of the world — have faulted Rhodes’s legacy at Oxford University as well, prompting Oriel College to agree to removal of a plaque praising him for "great services rendered." Students now are calling for removal of a Rhodes statue as well.

In the United States, a Black Lives Matter generation has entered college challenging comparable symbols. They are motivated by recent events from Ferguson, Mo., to Charleston, S.C., where the Confederate flag did not serve as a harmless relic of a long-dead past but sustained present-day racist violence.

At Yale, a campaign demands renaming one residential college for someone other than John C. Calhoun, an antebellum senator from South Carolina who supported slavery. At Princeton, a sit-in prompted the university to agree to contemplate stripping all buildings of the name of Woodrow Wilson, a former president of both that university and the United States. At Harvard Law School, the "Royall Must Fall" campaign objects to the school’s crest, which is adapted from the coat of arms of the slave-owning Royall family.

Critics of these efforts have objected that protesters’ logic would require colleges to scrub themselves of all traces of anyone who was a slave owner or racist — or, reductio ad absurdum, anyone at all with flaws. In this view, the new student activism is an exercise in "moral vanity," a charge leveled against the Oxford campaigners by Tony Abbott, a former Australian prime minister and Rhodes Scholar.

Yet the specific historical figures under protest in these controversies are well-selected. They have engendered controversy for good reason, for they not only reflected the norms of their day but also actively shaped social mores from positions of power. Rhodes was the archetypal "white man’s burden" colonialist. Wilson introduced Jim Crow segregation at the federal level. Calhoun was the slaveholding South’s foremost ideologist and politician. The Royall family did not merely own slaves but traded in them.

Whatever else they did or thought, men such as Royall, Calhoun, Rhodes, and Wilson were decisive, unapologetic architects of systems premised on racial exploitation. They played substantial parts in creating the world of inequality that we have inherited.

It has been further suggested that in order to be consistent, Oxford would have to eliminate all symbols of feudal despotism. But that argument is casuistic. Unlike racism, there is no practical danger today of a revived absolutist monarchy or serfdom, which is why students aren’t moved to demand such changes.

Another, much stronger argument made by those who hesitate to eliminate symbols of the past is that history cannot be comprehended if erased. The past should not be wiped away, runs this line of thought. Leaving it intact can remind us of the need to transcend it.

This position is sophisticated in that it concedes that racial injustice is embedded in institutional histories, admirable in that it does not patronize students, and welcome in that it upholds the value of historical knowledge in a society all too obsessed with the present.

As a historian who deeply values the study of the past, and who frequently laments the amnesia of our times, I appreciate any good defense of the value of historical memory. But I am troubled by this particular invocation of history and wish to offer a dissenting viewpoint. (I should disclose that while I have no personal stake in any specific controversy over campus symbols, I do have a daughter at Yale residing in Calhoun College, and she favors its renaming.)

History is one thing, memorials another. As tributes, memorials are selective, affirmative representations. When a university names a building after someone or erects a statue to that person, it bestows honor and legitimacy. The imprimatur of an institution of higher education affords the subject respect, dignity, and authority. This makes memorials every bit as much about values, status quo, and future as about remembrance.

We intuit the value of preserving a site such as Auschwitz-Birkenau on the grounds that no one should ever forget the Holocaust, but we appreciate the Allied policy of the denazification of Germany, which included painting over swastikas and discarding innumerable portraits of Hitler. Those impulses are not contradictory.

Memorials are not, by and large, erected after long and careful study of the past. Universities do not typically make decisions about how to name sports centers, libraries, dining halls, dormitories, or classrooms in consultation with panels of historians. Let’s be honest: Who has a building named after him or a statue made of him is a reflection of power and wealth.

That is why we now find ourselves discussing men of the clout of Calhoun and Wilson, or the class of Royall and Rhodes. Whether we consider a mogul’s bequests to be philanthropy or whitewashing, we should not take their statues or coats of arms as equivalents of biographies. There is a salient difference between a Rhodes bust placed in a museum and a marker celebrating his life displayed in the center of campus.

History is a process of cognition and revision — literally, re-seeing — of the past. From time to time, one or another circle of historians is characterized as "revisionist," but in actuality all historians are revisionists, writing from the vantage point of their own lives and times even as they aspire to objectivity.

This does not make history subjective. It must be sustained by evidence and held to the test of others’ scrutiny. That is how consensuses emerge about what took place and why. In that way, our understanding of history changes over time, often as dramatically as that history itself. To reconsider, to recast, is the essence of historical practice. It follows that altering how we present the past through commemorative symbols is not ahistorical. It is akin to what historians do. No historian now writes about slavery in the way historians did a century ago.

A reconsideration of memorials and symbols poses no danger to freedom. A university can uphold academic freedom and freedom of expression while at the same time seeking to avoid implicitly exclusionary or bigotry-laced signs and legacies in its official infrastructure.

It is imperative for students to confront slavery and Jim Crow in the classroom, with instructors assigning writings by proponents of those systems, as I did this past term, for example, by having my "History of American Capitalism" class read James Henry Hammond’s "Cotton Is King" speech in the Senate.

Such recognition of the historical significance of white supremacy is perfectly compatible with believing that institutions should not give it credence in their memorials — precisely in order that openly white-supremacist society not be permitted to reconstitute itself.

What is erasure in one sense can in another and more important sense be an acknowledgment and validation of the past. When a building named for an arch-advocate of slavery is accorded another name, it pays respect to the lives of those whom he condemned to be owned. When the University of Illinois retired its pseudo-Indian mascot Chief Illiniwek, the decision reflected the increased awareness of such misappropriation and stereotyping born of a deeper appreciation of Native American history.

We lament the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, but the changes that students want on campuses today do not involve entities imbued with sacred qualities. Nor are those symbols ancient. Calhoun College, for example, was named in 1933; Oxford’s Rhodes statue was erected in 1911. In historical terms, the period since then is the blink of an eye.

Examples abound of demolitions widely taken as acts of liberation, not cultural boorishness. The Hungarian rebels who toppled statues of Stalin in 1956 are celebrated, not accused of desecrating history. Similarly, there has been no outcry against Ukraine’s recent dismantling of more than 800 statues of Lenin, a measure taken in response to the provocations of Putin’s Russia. (Most of the works were consigned to museums, it appears, although a clever artist converted one into Darth Vader.)

Just as in certain contexts erasure is a sign of memory, so can memorials be a form of forgetting. Insofar as relics of the era of overt white supremacy may represent an institution’s failure to look itself in the mirror and adopt inclusive symbols so as to welcome all prospective students and academics, the symbols are indicators of an institutional blind spot. To remove them does not vitiate history; on the contrary, it represents a more thorough coming to terms with the past and its legacies, a refusal to forget.

Eliminating dubious memorials is hardly a sufficient measure in itself. Those calling for symbolic transformations also typically seek allocations of resources to end institutional racism. They know, however, that how a university defines, names, and represents itself is not immaterial, that emblems convey an essence.

The impetus to alter our symbols is compelling when they are challenged by students of color who view them as signs of an institution’s failure to be sufficiently inclusive, something they can attest to in their own daily experience.

Yes, we should see history as irreducibly contradictory, bloody, and shot through with injustice — as well as with courageous resistance to oppression. Yes, we should acknowledge that we ourselves are flawed. But in no way do such insights dictate that our institutions permanently consecrate white supremacy in their architecture and traditions.

The students who call upon universities to adopt new symbols reflective of democratic values are not erasing history. They want us to grasp it.

Correction (1/13/2016, 5:25 p.m.): Because of an editing error, this essay originally referred to "an institution's failure to be insufficiently inclusive." It should have said "an institution's failure to be sufficiently inclusive." The text has been revised accordingly.

Christopher Phelps is an associate professor of American studies at the University of Nottingham, in England, and co-author, with Howard Brick, of Radicals in America: The U.S. Left Since the Second World War (Cambridge University Press, 2015).