Karina Ochoa Berkley is a rising sophomore majoring in political science and philosophy.
On June 22, D.C. protesters were almost successful in pulling down the statue of Andrew Jackson that is positioned in front of the White House. Jackson, the seventh president, is notorious for his genocidal massacre of Indigenous peoples. This followed other nationwide efforts to remove racist monuments, including those of Confederate soldiers, war criminals, slave owners and colonizers. The movement to remove monuments commemorating individuals who have actively participated in the implementation and advancement of systemic racism puts GW, a school named after a colonist and slave owner whose moniker is the Colonial, in a precarious position. In fact, several student organizations including the Black Student Union, Black Defiance, Persist GW, GW Students for Indigenous and Native American Rights and Students Against Imperialism, have already launched the Reconsider The Names campaign in an effort to rename the nickname along with other University buildings named after segregationists and slave owners.
While officials could change the moniker or its building names, the school’s commemoration of a colonist slave owner and its nickname to match is both fitting and appropriate to the institution. But when it comes to being neocolonial and racist, GW is not special. The historical development of academic institutions as a whole suggests they owe their founding, expansion and present existence to colonialism and slave labor. It also suggests, like statues and monuments, that higher education institutions are, in part, memorializations of racism that we need to honestly own up to. But unlike statues and monuments, they are living institutions that have yet to undergo transformational structural changes.
From the founding of Oxford University more than 400 years ago to the arrival of the colonists and the eventual establishment of nine colonial colleges, higher education in the West has existed as an exclusionary institution designed to produce and maintain an academic elite class, particularly drawn on racial, class and gender lines, and to strategize ways to maintain existing social and economic structures. As such, colonial institutions were founded on the aim of constructing an ‘all-White civilization’ that could only be brought about by the ethnic cleansing, racial genocide and removal of Indigenous peoples.
This active contribution on the part of academic institutions to the historical erasure of Native culture, of course, cannot be separated from the systematic removal of and theft of land from Native Americans. It is the very theft of land from the Indigenous peoples, provided by the Morrill Act of 1862, that created the material base for higher education institutions to exist. Higher education institutions rarely have been known to attribute their success and foundation to the removal and genocide of Natives. This is the case even though they are still completely dependent on these authorities of privatization established in the colonial era.
The material foundation of higher education institutions can be attributed to yet another product of colonialism: slavery. In the mid-18th century, the number of higher education institutions increased from three to nine. The rapid growth and expansion of these institutions directly correlates with the peak of the Atlantic slave trade. Not only did the colonial colleges – namely Harvard, Columbia, Princeton and Yale universities – receive funding from the profit off of slave labor, some even owe their physical construction to slave labor. This being the case, leaders in higher education historically have resisted emancipation and abolitionist movements. For example, the American Colonization Society, founded in 1816 and based at Columbia, Princeton and Yale, advocated for emancipated slaves to be sent on ships back to Africa in order to ‘Christianize Africa’ and preserve the notion of an ‘all-White civilization’ that these institutions benefitted from.
Our very own GW is no different, funded from 50 shares of George Washington’s Potomac Company, which relied on indentured servitude and slave labor to generate profit. Workers at the Potomac Company often died from dangerous work conditions and the inadequate provision of rations. But relatively unique to GW is it being named after a colonizer and a slave owner – an issue not every academic institution has to grapple with. Washington famously owned more than 300 slaves, some whose teeth he had pulled to construct his dentures.
GW’s colonist roots are not only an issue of the past. Academic institutions like GW continue to make higher education more exclusionary and elitist by cutting admission rates in an effort to appeal to the Colonial-era notion of “prestige” which caters to applicants of wealthy families who benefit from the high-stakes testing system that college applications are characterized by– one that disproportionately excludes poor applicants of color. Additionally, tuition rates have been dramatically increasing the cost of tuition over the past few decades, restricting higher education as a resource for the economic elite. GW has also proposed cutting spending on the social sciences, which tend to hire first-generation social justice-oriented faculty, often as a result of diversity initiatives, and which teach disciplines like critical race and gender studies. Cutting spending to these departments is part of an ongoing effort to produce marketable technocrats and compliant workers, increase the “elite nature” of the institution by earning larger salaries and being awarded larger research grants– factors that often go into calculating a college’s ranking, as opposed to academics, philosophers and social critics who are not as marketable in a capitalist economy. This is not only an issue at GW but rather a trend across academic institutions that need to remain competitive in a capitalist higher education market. A social and economic movement that fosters truly inclusive academic conditions, one that will be brought about by social critics and academics, isn’t profitable or beneficial to the power structures that enable institutions like GW to exist.
GW could abandon its Colonials moniker, or perhaps more radically, its own name, but it would hardly make inroads toward addressing the fundamentally racist and elitist academic structure it has participated in and still perpetuates. The colonial is a racist relic of its heritage, but it’s an accurate symbol of the kinds of social systems higher education has maintained, and one GW has embraced with pride.
So while GW decides whether it wants to continue self-describing as Colonials, we should start working to restructure and reimagine a higher education system that is not accurately described as being colonial, doesn’t promote and maintain the existence of an elite social class and doesn’t systematically benefit from racial genocide.
Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.