Are memorials to racists of yore a present-day crisis? That was the gist of Lincoln Caplan’s recent essay in The Atlantic. Caplan wrote about the white-supremacist lineage of Calhoun College, one of 12 residential colleges that make up Yale University’s undergraduate community. Named for the alumnus John C. Calhoun, the building is a legacy to a South Carolina politician who explicitly claimed what is usually only an implicit claim in American culture: White freedom relies on permanent black subjugation. Caplan goes on:

...when Yale announced its plan to name one of its new residential colleges after Calhoun, the decision was similarly made under reconciliation’s spell. Judith Schiff, Yale’s Chief Archivist, told the Calhoun alumni last year, “They decided they wanted to name a college after the most famous statesman that Yale had produced. No one seemed surprised.” Lodge’s speech about Calhoun and Yale’s naming of a residential college after him were of a piece with what Blight catalogued—“a kind of Southern victory in the long struggle over Civil War memory.”

Given the history of racism, wealth, and institution building on which all U.S. universities are constructed, the debate about Calhoun is specific but not unique. It may also be missing a larger point about the relationship between memory and politics. The legacy of racism is not just carved into the facades of university buildings; it is found in the persistence of inherited privilege that shapes the composition of the curriculum, the student body, and the faculty.

There has been a renaissance of sorts in the study of U.S. enslavement and apartheid among historians, economists, and social scientists whose work examines the foundations of this nation’s wealth, inequality, and culture. Historians have done a lot of this work, revisiting long-standing empirical claims about slavery’s brutality, persistence, and resiliency. Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History makes the case that the global system of cotton production that underpinned U.S. slavery reverberates through today’s global economy. Edward E. Baptist’s delightfully painful The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism is brutal to read. It traces the trajectory of the U.S. slavery from its origins with the Atlantic slave trade to the internal U.S. slave trade. There is also Greg Grandin’s The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom and Deception in the New World and David Brion Davis’s The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation. All of these books were released within the last three years. Each tackles a dimension of the history of enslavement; its relationship to wealth creation and geopolitics; and refutes the commonly held belief that the United States has gotten over slavery or that it should. If, this work argues, America’s social, economic, and political system is still benefitting from the slave trade, then forgetting would be downright unpatriotic.  

From the economists, we have Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Capital, heavy enough to jack up a small car, was the rare work of economics that became a best-selling book. Piketty argues that inequality is endogenous to modern capitalism. Consequently, state interventions must persistently work to counter that inequality and maintain the integrity of markets and states. The work set off debates about the veracity of Piketty’s data, the novelty of his claims, the efficacy of his empirical model, and occasionally the politics of critiquing what some argue is the greatest system of prosperity human societies have ever devised.

All of that is beside the point at the moment. What is relevant is where Piketty begins his argument about the nature of capital, wealth, and inequality in the U.S. He begins it with a (truncated) appraisal of the slavery. That is, Piketty argued that to understand contemporary inequality, one must understand the role of slavery in the development of markets. At a 2014 conference at CUNY to assess the book that became a juggernaut, the economist Steven Durlaf put a finer point on that, challenging Piketty’s treatment as anemic given that slavery was the precondition for capital in the new world. In a paper Piketty later wrote with Gabriel Zucman, he gives that argument a fuller treatment than he offers in Capital. The wealth extracted from enslaved people formed the foundation of massive wealth in the U.S., and that massive wealth then became institutionalized in lots of ways that last to the present. It provides the capital for philanthropy. It shapes political parties by exerting economic power over the public domain. It is reinforced by tax codes, through devices like mortgage tax credits and low inheritance tax rates. And, it builds universities.

Many elite universities in the U.S. are elite, in part, because they became repositories for wealth that enslavement (and later apartheid) made possible. Craig Steven Wilder writes in Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities that “the merchant economy where the slave traders had come to power and rose as the financial and intellectual backers of new culture of the colonies” were also the states where the schools that would become the nation’s oldest and most prestigious were founded. Slave labor either physically built the modern American university or was the wealth vehicle that conditioned the making of the American university.  

Today, sociologists like Sheila Slaughter, Gary Rhodes, and Elizabeth Popp Berman talk about “academic capitalism” or how universities increasingly mimic corporations. One way they do this is by aggressively buying, holding, and managing real estate. In some cases, universities become accelerators for gentrification, pushing out minority and working-class communities. New York’s Columbia University and its long torrid history with its Harlem neighbors is one example. Similarly, Wilder says that the land-acquisition strategies of Yale and William and Mary were embedded in the racialized geopolitics of its time: Both schools “acquired tens of thousands of acres in the British colonies ... negotiated leases, hired managers and agents, collected rents, inspected properties, and bid on neighboring parcels to expand their holdings.” William and Mary’s colonial estates were a useful way to earn income. The university regularly leased college slaves to generate capital and reduce overhead.

In 2011, Emory University held what it billed as “the first-ever conference examining the history and legacy of slavery’s role in higher education.” I attended that conference as a graduate student. Much of the discussion focused on the role of slavery in making U.S. universities; few discussions went so far as to explore how that matters in the contemporary university. (One exception was the economist Sandy Darity’s paper on memory, memorial, and wealth at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.)

But other books drive home the point that the origins of U.S. universities had a lasting impact on their character. James Karabel’s The Chosen, for example, focuses on the history of “selective” admissions at Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. These elite universities co-created the idea of “character” as a college-admission criterion to resist and control increasing demands that they integrate and diversify. The less well-known part of that story is how Karabel links this history—its foundations and the memorials that commemorate its architects—to present-day politics about race and higher-education admissions. This historical precedent shapes how and why U.S. universities weigh in on affirmative-action policies and court cases. The rhetoric is that they do so out of a moral obligation to fairness. But these efforts also reflect a hard-won historical lesson: If you want to protect the exclusivity of your school, you want to own the terms of admissions.  

It would be near impossible at almost any U.S. university to memorialize the institution’s past without also memorializing the ideology of white nationhood and black subjugation—as the name of Calhoun College does. Beyond the names and marble likenesses, it is the wealth—its formation, its inheritance, its persistence—that haunts American institutions. Should an institution want to reject that past or redress the conditions of its founding, it might do better to commit the institution to educational-justice programs like affirmative action, reparations, and basic income. Without that, scholars will be writing these same books, these same histories for generations to come.