Naming Rites for Naming Wrongs: What We Talk about When We Talk about Woodrow Wilson


Naming Rites for Naming Wrongs: What We Talk about When We Talk about Woodrow Wilson

by Dara Z. Strolovitch, Princeton University & Chaya C. Crowder, Princeton University

From calls to remove Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill to demands that the University of Cape Town remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes and that Woodrow Wilson’s and John C. Calhoun’s names be removed from institutions at Princeton and Yale, a wave of activism is forcing us to revisit dominant historical narratives, to confront the elisions embedded in the “consensus memories” of the figures associated with them, and to recognize and reckon with their continued implications for inequality and marginalization in the present. 1 “In the dialectic between remembering and forgetting that is a central component of memory,” Leigh Raiford and Renee Romano write, narratives about the past “beg us to ask what is at stake” in dominant representations of historical events and figures.

To try to understand one small portion of this dialectic, we turned to editorials and op-eds that took a position on whether to rename things named after Woodrow Wilson or John C. Calhoun. We limited the sample to pieces published during the period from September 1, 2015, through April 11, 2016, a period that begins with the reinvigourated debates at Yale and Princeton and ends with Princeton’s announcement that the names of both the School of Public and International and Affairs and the Woodrow Wilson residential college would remain unchanged). As evident in Table 1, we identified 40 such pieces in 16 national newspapers and 21 pieces in 12 college newspapers. Although we coded each one to discern the reasons given by their writers for their support for, or objection to, the proposed renaming, we focus in what follows on the arguments against removing the names.

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Perspectives on Politics / Volume 14, Issue 3 / September 2016, pp. 770-775