Should America rename historic buildings, military bases and schools perceived to honor racists?
- A June 2020 ABC-Ipsos poll records 56% of Americans as opposed to “‘changing the names of U.S. military bases that are named after Confederate leaders,’” with 67% of surveyed African Americans being less supportive of renaming military bases.
- The Civil War (1861-1865) was fought between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America to end the institution of slavery. Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th President over the Union while Jefferson Davis was elected president over the Confederacy.
- Non-confederate historical figures, such as founders James Madison, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and 28th President Woodrow Wilson, whose names label schools and buildings, have been the target of outrage since protests began in May 2020.
- Some airports named after now-tarred celebrities, such as John Wayne, have also been called to be renamed.
The recent BLM and Antifa-led riots and protests around the country have been accompanied by demands and moves to rename historic buildings, military bases, and schools perceived to honor racists; we should resist this impulse. There are many reasons why renaming is a bad idea, here are just a few. First, it rewards a minority mob against the interests of a majority of Americans. It fails to capitalize on a chance to educate ourselves about our history and the context of the time when the original naming took place. And, finally, it’s a dangerous, reactionary way to shut down debate.
We should be cautious about making an emotional, “feel good” gesture to appease the angry mob involved in toppling monuments and defacing public property. 56% of Americans oppose renaming. If we apply a retroactive moral litmus test to all of our nation’s founders and subsequent notable leaders, it’s highly unlikely that any will pass unscathed – humans are imperfect beings.
Rather than trying to erase our nation’s history by renaming historic buildings, we should seize this opportunity to increase the historical awareness of the context in which the original namings took place. Knowledge is power – we should seek to understand rather than remove it. The current appetite to rename appears more reactionary than progressive. In a troubling turn, Colleges and Universities are often the first institutions to capitulate to the angry hordes demanding renaming. When the last bastions of enlightenment and open discourse start to shut down free speech and debate, it’s an ominous sign for our nation.
Keeping racist names on schools, military bases, and historic buildings excuse racism in favor of the oppressor. Schools and military bases exist to serve those who use them, namely, students, soldiers, and the American people. Many people who belong to both these groups are ready to erase the racist names that garnish these educational and military institutions. The Senate recently voted this past July in favor of renaming military bases named after Confederate soldiers, demonstrating a bipartisan desire for change. A June Ipsos poll shows 33% of African Americans favor changing Confederate-named military bases. While not a majority, Black Americans were still the most affected group under the Confederacy. Educational and military institutions don't exist without those they serve, so they ought to value the opinion of this group over the preservation of flawed historical figures.
Additionally, American classrooms can sometimes pedal inaccurate or oversimplified American history. A building that honors a racist person clouds history and makes it seem that that person is worthy of reverence. Giving the historic building a name that respects the oppressed better reflects America's racial history. Additionally, academic and military leadership skews white, the race that benefits from white supremacy and racism. So, when these institutions keep their racist names, white people are the ones excusing (and profiting from) their inaction. There is a difference between acknowledging and continuing bad historical practices. Changing the names of these institutions allows for an inclusive understanding of history that doesn't dehumanize people of color. However, keeping the names allows the memory of a racist person to live on without meaningful critical analysis and perpetuates systemic racism in the American government, education system, and military.