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.