Yale's mistake on John Calhoun

Story highlights

  • Yale turns down student demands to remove John Calhoun's name
  • John McWhorter says Calhoun was too ardent a champion of slavery to be honored

John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy and music history at Columbia University and is the author of "The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)I am generally not a fan of the fashion for demanding the removal from buildings of the names of people of the past whose views about disadvantaged groups wouldn't pass muster with enlightened folk today. Yet Yale University, in refusing student protesters' demand that a residential college named after John C. Calhoun be renamed, has missed an issue of degree.

John McWhorter
For all the excesses of the protests that rocked so many college campuses last fall, there were issues on their slates of demands that made some sense. Questioning the appropriateness of having to walk by a Calhoun College every day was one of them.
Make no mistake: things named after George Washington and Thomas Jefferson occasion in me no pious "considerations" that the men were, amidst all else that they accomplished, slaveholders. My life ticks along just fine despite things named after Robert E. Lee. That Yale has decided to name a new building after Benjamin Franklin rankles me not despite that Franklin, as a white man of his time, had some slaves for a while. Most will agree that the volume of the man's accomplishments dwarfs the blight of his slaveowning stint.
Certainly we should know about the injustices of the past -- but this need not require the open-ended shaming of individuals themselves. I do not think, for example, that Lin-Manuel Miranda was remiss in leaving slavery in the background in his musical "Hamilton," contrary to some critics.
A great many people would find it hard to get through dinner with most people now dead, given the seismic and welcome changes in how racism and sexism were treated starting in the 1960s. Few people are able to see beyond the boundaries of their time. In our times, with changing ideas about homosexuality, many people of a certain age are feeling somewhat queasy about attitudes they harbored quite recently but couldn't have helped because it was all they knew. In the future, we may be looked back upon as barbaric in how we treat animals.
We would blanch at the idea of people considered heroes today having their names pulled off buildings 200 years from now because they farmed livestock. "They didn't know any better," we would object, or at least, they didn't realize how important the issue was. My take on people before us is equivalent. Plus, with all that ails us in the present, I'm not sure what more useful purpose rooting around for malevolence in the past to "think about" serves us.
That said, there are times when it can be argued that people indeed could have known better, to an extent that justifies not erasing them from history, but denying them the dignity of ongoing commemoration.
For example, Woodrow Wilson was not just a Southern racist, but an especially bigoted one who presided over casting blacks out of government positions. Wilson endlessly charged that black people were an "ignorant and inferior race," ardently supported -- in professorial writings -- the reversal of black gains in Reconstruction, and emblazoned his racist views on title cards of the film "Birth of a Nation."
Other presidents of the era naturally displayed occasional signs of the racism accepted in their lifetimes, but Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Warren Harding seemed like African-American studies department professors compared to Wilson.
Princeton has refused to remove Wilson's name and visage from its property, but I would have been on the students' side on that one: I have always been chilled by the very thought of Woodrow Wilson.
John C. Calhoun is a like case. To argue for the removal of all slaveowners' names from all buildings is witch-hunting. However, this man argued vigorously for slavery against growing currents against it, in one speech actually celebrating the fact that in many quarters, increasing moral discomfort with slavery had of late abated in favor of a conception of slavery as a "great institution" that benefited the "inferior" race especially.
America can be proud of how far we have come on race in the past 50 years. The fashion is to insist we haven't come very far at all, but few fully understand what a precious and unprecedented thing it was for a group to demand to be treated equally and have that demand enshrined into actual law, and this can be treated as a signature moral touchstone of this nation.
As such, Calhoun's shining, heartless paeans to keeping black people in bondage and making others believe the same can be seen as uniquely disgusting -- disgusting enough that he might not furnish the name of a college, of all things, on a university campus.
Yale did the right thing in eliminating the "Master" title for residential hall faculty supervisors, but in that, it seems almost strange that they insist on retaining as a college title the name of a man who considered it the Platonic good that blacks had to call whites like him "Master."
The official line from Yale is that such names on buildings furnish us with opportunities for discussion about the past -- OK, but how interested would we be in "discussions" occasioned by a building on a college campus in 2216 named after David Duke?