After 84 years, Yale University finally decided to rename its Calhoun College after someone who, unlike John C. Calhoun, actually deserves the honor. The college will be known as Hopper College after Grace Hopper, United States Navy Rear Admiral and one of the founders of computer science.
Grace Hopper was a noted computer programmer who helped develop the first computer compiler (which translates worded instructions into code for computers to follow). She studied math and physics at Vassar College. After graduating in 1928, she attended Yale University where she became one of the first women to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics.
Hopper also served in the Navy during World War II and later returned to active duty at age 60 to standardize communication between computer languages. She retired from the Navy at 79. Given her accomplishments, having a college named after her is the least she deserves.
Calhoun, on the other hand, while very accomplished was also an ardent white supremacist and supporter of slavery. He served in Congress representing South Carolina and also served as Vice President of the United States, Secretary of State and Secretary of War. And, again, because it can’t be said enough, he was a vehement racist who believed slavery was a “positive good.” He was essentially the Steve Bannon of his time.
Like many places with racist names, Calhoun College has been causing controversy for years, but even up until last year, Yale refused to change the name.
White people’s refusal to change offensive names leaves a racist mark on everything from college buildings to sports teams to mountains and towns.
The most prominent name controversy is probably the Washington Redskins, a football team worth almost $3 billion. Despite boycotts and lawsuits, owner Daniel Snyder refuses to change his team’s name to something less overtly racist. Fans claim the 85-year-old team can’t change its name because it carries significant, proud history. They’re somehow able to overlook the slightly longer history of Native Americans. And it’s true, a poll showed that 90 percent of Native Americans weren’t offended by the name, but that doesn’t mean the controversy is over.
Research shows that exposure to Native American mascots reinforce stereotypes in non-native people. So while not all the people being represented by an offensive mascot are personally offended, they’re still being negatively impacted by the enforcement of stereotypes.
Resistance to public name changes is fierce, even after the decision has already been made. In 2015, President Obama announced that Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America, would be renamed Mount Denali — the mountain’s original name and the one used by locals. The move sought to rectify the “cultural imperialism” inherent in replacing a Native American name with a contextually irrelevant white American one.
And yet, during his campaign Donald Trump promised to reverse the reversal to appease angry Republicans and constituents from Ohio, where William McKinley was born.
While Hopper College is a welcome — if not overdue — change, there are still plenty of places in the US with offensive names. Vocativ created a database of all the places that include racist slurs in their names and found over 1,400 federally recognized places in the States with racially offensive names. This doesn’t even include places with a racist namesake, just those that include slurs.
More than 500 of these places contain derogatory terms for African Americans, most containing the word “negro.” A New York Times article from 1996, which was actually pretty offensive in itself, shows Little Negro Road in Kentucky has been causing controversy for decades.
Thirty places in the United States include the word “Chinaman,” like Chinaman’s Hat, the alternative name for a small island in Hawaii.
Scores of mascots still bear offensive names — it’s not just the Redskins. Nicholls State University’s Colonel Tillou was a Confederate army officer. San Diego State is represented by an Aztec Warrior. “Hey Reb!,” the mascot for University of Nevada, Las Vegas is a slightly watered down version of their former mascot, who wore a Confederate uniform.
Although plenty of colleges are finally making name changes, many others still retain their racist roots. Tillman Hall at Clemson University, for example, was named after Benjamin Tillman. Tillman held positions as a governor and a senator and promoted white supremacism, lynching and Jim Crow laws.