Prominent Harvard Law professor explains why he ‘respects’ Yale’s decision to keep the name of a slave owner on one of its 12 colleges

Randall Kennedy
Randall Kennedy. screengrab via youtube

Yale University announced last week that it will retain the name of Calhoun College
one of its 12 residential colleges. The college was named for John C. Calhoun, a 19th-century alumnus and 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 believe that Yale made a mistake in their decision to keep Calhoun’s name on the college.

While removing the name would have been Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy‘s “preference,”  he “can respect the decision thay [Yale] made,” he told Business Insider. 

“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 believes in “addition, not subtraction,” when grappling with historical legacies mired in racism. He explained that it’s possible to retain the name Calhoun and change the meaning of that name.

Yale Campus
Yale. Yale University / Michael Marsland

“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 a vastly different one than has been prominently vocalized on campus and elsewhere. On Twitter, 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 defence of its decision to retain Calhoun as an educational tool, calling it “absolute nonsense,” according to the Yale Daily News (YDN).

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?”

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 YDN. “We are haemorrhaging qualified, caring faculty of colour.”

Racial tensions boiled over on Yale’s New Haven, Connecticut, campus last year, exposing feelings that Yale provided an unwelcoming environment for students of colour and that pervasive racism existed.

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