As students take an active role in effecting social change on and off campus, our community has an opportunity to assess the names of our buildings. Five student organizations – The Black Student Union, Students for Indigenous and Native American Rights, Persist GW, Students Against Imperialism and GW Black Defiance – have organized a campaign to rethink who GW venerates. It is well past time we heed their advice.
But in typical GW fashion, the far-right GW chapter of Young America’s Foundation’s executive board wrote out its temper tantrum at the potential changes. This group spews ideas that would make our slaver Founding Fathers proud by bringing speakers who are afraid of healthy vaginas to campus and giving a platform to a man who Fox News banned for his hateful rhetoric. This group despises social change, they hate the other and they claim to be the target of hatred when, at worst, they’re the target of petty crimes. This group should not be taken seriously in GW’s naming process.
But just for the fun of it, let’s deconstruct the organization’s old-dead-White-men bootlicking.
By the fifth sentence of its op-ed published in The Hatchet last month, the group’s ignorance of the Black Lives Matter movement – and social change more generally – becomes clear. YAF writes that ditching the racist namesake of several campus buildings serves those who “seek to dismantle rather than create.” But their claim ignores the deep-seated rot in many U.S. systems. When peeling back the layers of a building, upon discovering dead wood, a competent builder recognizes the need to eliminate the rot and replace it. Recognizing James Madison, James Monroe and Francis Scott Key for “establish[ing] the foundational ideals of freedom, justice and equality” has some merit but only some. Each owned slaves, meaning those “foundational ideals” were intended for a select few. Their moral rot must be removed from our buildings.
YAF suggests that the contributions of these men to the United States are worth more than their “[p]ersonal flaws.” The legacies that men like Madison, Monroe and Key left are those which Americans still seek to overcome – racism, imperialism and misapplications of justice. The e-board notes as much in their opening paragraph but apparently fails to connect 400 years of oppression to modern phenomena.
YAF also blames “[o]ur education system and popular culture” for a lack of national pride, citing a poll that shows more than one-third of Americans refuse to call our Founding Fathers “heroes” and one-quarter of millennials call them “villains.” To borrow from YAF’s idol, Ben Shapiro, “Facts don’t care about your feelings.” There is no doubt that the Founding Fathers took great risks in establishing this quasi-democratic republic. But to idealize them, to ignore their glaring flaws, is the exact opposite of their aims. Blind idolatry of leaders was for the English under King George, not Americans across the Atlantic Ocean.
YAF calls these opinions on America’s Founding Fathers “unsustainable.” They are, in fact, irrefutable. The American “success” story that YAF clings to was built off the backs of slaves, off the care of women forced to remain at home and even now seeks to exclude as many people of color and poor people as possible. The success YAF glorifies is at the expense and because of almost everyone who is not a wealthy, White, Christian man.
In their admiration of former presidents, YAF notes Monroe’s foreign policy doctrine to wall off the Americas from European intervention. This doctrine was then used to justify dozens of coups in the region, toppling democratically-elected government after democratically-elected government, usually in the interest of U.S. businesses. The men and women YAF cite as models of American success – Frederick Douglass, who had to flee slavery; Susan B. Anthony, who opposed Black suffrage because White women were not included; and Martin Luther King, Jr., who was murdered for his fight against systemic racism – are noteworthy for clawing toward equality with wealthy White men in the face of systematic oppression by wealthy White men – not because of some amazing American ideals.
If “[the] journey is part of the story,” as YAF noted, this American journey sought to quash any and all attempts at change, from the Dred Scott decision in 1857 to the recent gutting of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Madison and Monroe did not believe that Black Americans deserved the same rights – it’s unclear if they believed their compatriots of color were even human. If they did, their slaveholding is unconscionable and constitutes a terrible act of violence. If they did not, their dehumanization of Black people is equally disqualifying.
GW needs more patriots who will stand for what this country is supposed to be about: freedom and equality. Removing namesakes, no matter how small, of the undeserving is the first step for our community toward alleviating displays of racism, both overt and covert. We must not accept anything less from our administration than the implementation of the plans proposed by the five groups named at the beginning of this piece – they are the students who are pro-American, not YAF.
Matthew Zachary, a senior majoring in Latin American studies, is a columnist.