What to do when a campus building or statue honors a racist?

'America has to be honest about its roots,' says one professor

The nine racially motivated murders at a predominately black South Carolina church last month sparked and renewed discussions about removing tributes to historical, slavery-linked figures on college campuses nationwide.

As South Carolina legislators debate removing the Confederate flag from the State House, officials at higher education institutions across the country are considering similar decisions.

At Yale University, a petition now calls for a residential hall to be stripped of its name honoring John C. Calhoun, while Clemson University faculty leaders have renewed a push to remove the name of noted racist and politician Benjamin Tillman from a building.

In some cases, protesters have begun defacing school property. A statue depicting a Confederate soldier at the University of North Carolina (UNC)-Chapel Hill was recently vandalized with "murderer" and "KKK."

Campus community members championed the idea of renaming buildings before the June shootings; UNC, University of Maryland, and University of Virginia all seriously considered doing so this spring. But in light of the attack on the church, even more schools are engaging in conversations regarding race and history.

Yale officials welcome the opportunity, says spokesperson Karen Peart.

"The tragedy in Charleston, on top of countless preceding tragedies in our country's history, has elevated public opinion and discourse on difficult subjects that have too long been avoided," Peart says.

However others say simply taking away a name is not enough.

"Removing a name, removing a symbol is easy and we can say, 'problem solved.' But we're dealing with a symbol and we're not dealing with the root cause. And the root cause is systemic racism," says Temple University professor Christopher Rabb, who lived in Calhoun Hall as a black student years ago, when a stained glass window depicted Calhoun standing above a slave. 

To truly handle the issue, the school must ensure every student understands the institution's link to slavery, he says.

"Yale has the ability to transform itself, but it first has to be honest about its roots, just like America has to be honest about its roots," Rabb says (Haigh, Associated Press, 7/5; Brown, "Grade Point," Washington Post, 7/6; Blinder, New York Times, 7/6; Svrluga, "Grade Point," Washington Post, 4/8; Inside Higher Ed, 7/6).

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