This column is part of a point-counterpoint on the name of Calhoun College, newly contentious amid debates over the Confederate imagery. Read the other column here.
I’m standing in a Yale-owned building that’s supposed to represent the values of our University. I expected to feel at home. But instead, I feel a profound disjuncture. A tension between the Yale values projected by the exterior of the building and the racism I see represented by the neglect that characterizes the interior.
The building I’m standing in is the Afro-American Cultural Center, though the same holds true for each of Yale’s four cultural centers (with the exception of the recently renovated Native American Cultural Center).
Even positive symbols don’t mean much if they aren’t backed up by institutions, communities and people who actually embody those values. Without that, the symbol is empty.
Now don’t get me wrong: A symbol like the Confederate flag represents racist values. And when a person or an institution flies it, they are communicating something about whose lives they care about, and whose they don’t.
The naming of residential colleges functions in the same way. By tying racist symbolism to the built environment of an institution, that institution is validating (consciously or unconsciously) the racist ideology signified by that object.
And because the name of one’s residential college is so integral to a Yalie’s college experience, the effect is to tie our Yale identities to the names of people who would have viewed a good portion of the current Yale population as second-class citizens at best.
But here’s the thing about both the question of whether we should change the name of Calhoun College and the question of whether we should stop flying the Confederate flag on government buildings: they’re both distractions from what’s most important.
Because the fact is that all these southern Republican politicians aren’t coming out against flying the confederate flag because they care about racial justice or about black people. They’re doing it because to refuse would make their racism so glaring that it would jeopardize their reelection. Which in turn would jeopardize their ability to continue to pass legislation that reflects the ideology of white supremacy.
Even if these southern states had stopped flying the confederate flag 40 years ago, that would not have addressed the racist ideologies that led Dylann Roof to murder nine black people.
And a less dramatic truth applies at Yale: Even if we could rename every single residential college after radical people of color, racism would still manifest itself on our campus every day.
Because institutions such as Yale and the federal and state governments are inextricably implicated in the maintenance of racism in this country in ways that will take more to undo than hollow symbolic gestures.
Don’t get me wrong, symbolism is important. But to fixate on a futile debate about whether or not to change the name of Calhoun College is to miss the more fundamental question of how to shift power relationships on our campus so that they are more racially just.
How about we make sure as a Yale community that the administration follows through on its promises to adequately fund and renovate the cultural centers? How about we join in solidarity with Asian American students to pressure Yale into creating an Asian American Studies major? How about we advocate for Yale to remove the student income contribution — a disproportionate burden on students of color?
Or maybe we assist New Haven residents in holding Yale accountable for the ways it has encroached on the city’s most needy neighborhoods?
Pushing Yale to do these things — and so, so much more — is a more effective way of achieving the reality of racial justice on campus, rather than just a facade of equality.
What’s more, the kind of Yale that would implement these sorts of changes wouldn’t be debating whether to change the name of Calhoun College. That community would be debating what the new name should be, and how to teach the racist history of Yale and beyond so that we don’t keep replicating it in the present.