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Yes, I know “they all do it,” but today I’m going to pick on Yale.

yale racism

Yale Clings to Racist Legacy…And Cash--Lots of Cash—Peter Laarman

I don’t actually read alumni magazines; I just lay them out on my cocktail table to show off. If my guests happen to flip through them, I might observe to them that Brown uses nicer typography, whereas Yale uses nicer paper. But yesterday, as I was tossing the May issue of Yale’s sleek book into the recycling, I let myself get drawn into the university’s report on its decision to keep John C. Calhoun’s name on one of the old 12 residential colleges while naming two brand-new such colleges for (wait for it) Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray. The Yale Corporation also decided to drop the name “master” and substitute “head of college” for those persons, usually faculty members, who oversee programming in the colleges.

It’s not pretty to see these old “liberal” institutions, all of which were built with what Lincoln called the “wealth piled up by 250 years of the bondsman’s unrequited toil,” sucking up to the new oppressors for additional gilding.

Let’s look at these in order. Even though some prominent Yalies like Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. (who lived at Calhoun) argued for retaining Calhoun’s name, mainly for the sake of its “teachability,” this decision was a massive affront to many black people and a colossal mistake in that Sen. Calhoun was no ordinary racist but was, in fact, the foremost and most ferocious advocate of racial subjugation during the antebellum period.

Calhoun’s famous “slavery a positive good” speech needs to be read through to get a feel for this man’s snaky brilliance (Calhoun was Yale’s valedictorian in 1804). But it was brilliance put to an evil end. Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson undoubtedly did much harm to African Americans by bringing Jim Crow to Washington, D.C. as president, but Wilson’s offense pales in relation to Calhoun’s “achievement” in racist ideology and his active involvement in treasonous activity.

Moreover, as one astute Yale Alumni Magazine reader pointed out in a letter, the context in which the Yale Corporation voted, in May 1931, to name the then-new college for the South Carolinian serpent, was charged with anti-black resentment in New Haven.

In March 1930 Herbert Hoover had appointed an openly white-supremacist judge to the Supreme Court. That nominee narrowly lost a Senate confirmation vote in May, but in July of that same year W.E.B. Du Bois, writing in the NAACP’s Crisis, listed all the senators who had voted in favor of the racist judge and called for them to be denied reelection.

On Du Bois’s hit list were Connecticut’s two senators (both of them Republicans and Yale men, needless to say). It is inconceivable that DuBois’s take-them-down campaign was not very much on the minds of Yale’s trustees in May 1931. Their defiant response: name a gorgeous new gothically crafted residential college for the man who epitomizes white supremacy, Sen. Calhoun.

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Calhoun College originally featured a large stained glass window with shackled slaves kneeling at Sen. Calhoun’s feet. The offensive part of that window was discreetly removed in 1992, but many smaller windows with images representing Calhoun’s “values” remained. Then, last month, a black Yale dishwasher who was sick and tired of seeing these degrading images took a broomstick to one of them. While Yale has just announced it will not press charges against the gutsy and self-respecting Corey Menafee, it is very telling that a university committee only voted to remove all of the Calhoun-themed glass after Menafee’s bold action.

And now, what about the naming of the new residential colleges for Franklin and Murray? I think that the choice of Murray was brilliant, even if most people don’t know who she was. But I worry that the Corporation named a college for this fiercely activist and sexually courageous Yale Law grad as a kind of offset for the stupidity and cupidity of naming the other new college for Ben Franklin, a slave owner who had nothing at all to do with Yale (and who, in fact, founded the University of Pennsylvania).


So why go with Franklin? Because a rich alumnus who gave $250 million toward the physical expansion of Yale College happens to be madly in love with Franklin.


Of course, Yale has whored itself out many times before (and “they all do it”), most notably in not only agreeing (for a gift of $150 million) to name a renovated Commons/Memorial Hall complex for private equity kingpin Stephen Schwarzman but in also agreeing to let Schwarzman himself participate in shaping the programming of the new Schwarzman Center.

Yes, they all do it. But it’s still not pretty to see these old “liberal” institutions, all of which were built with what Lincoln called the “wealth piled up by 250 years of the bondsman’s unrequited toil,” sucking up to the new oppressors for additional gilding. It’s disgusting, in fact.

Oh, and what about the decision to change “master” to “head of college”? Here is where the Corporation might have stood its ground for the sake of “teachability.” Surely even today’s Yale students are capable of understanding that, in an academic context, “master” refers to magister and not to someone sipping mint juleps on the verandah as his “people” sing softly in the gloaming. And, like the decision to honor Pauli Murray, Yale’s abolition of the term “master” hardly compensates for the positive evil of retaining Calhoun’s name while letting plutocrats call all the major shots.


Peter Laarman
Religion Dispatches