Is one of these Calhouns less racist? / Photograph: Wikimedia

At the beginning of this year, Yale University students rose up to protest the name of one of its residential colleges, Calhoun. A few weeks ago Peter Salovey, president of Yale, made a controversial decision: he rejected the students’ argument and opted to retain the name. The decision has significant national consequences. If Yale, by reputation a liberal bastion in a liberal state, retains the name of Calhoun College, what does this signal for colleges and universities engaged in similar struggles in states where racial equality is yet more elusive? 

Calhoun College was named in 1933 in honor of John C. Calhoun, an antebellum statesman who played a critical role in articulating the southern defense of slavery. In 1837 Calhoun, serving at the time as senator of South Carolina (he had previously been Andrew Jackson’s vice-president), told the Senate:

In the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good.

President Salovey’s reaffirmation of the college’s name has been taken by some as a sign of disrespect for African Americans. He has defended his decision by recourse to a novel and intriguing argument: he was motivated, he wrote, out of a sincere desire to remind subsequent generations of Yale students about our nation’s troubled past. The reaffirmation is thus intended to serve Yale’s educational mission, not to honor Calhoun. According to Salovey, from this point forward the name “Calhoun College” no longer honors Calhoun’s dishonorable legacy, and therefore no longer communicates disrespect for African Americans. “Ours is a nation that often refuses to face its own history of slavery and racism. Yale is part of that history,” Salovey emphasized. “We cannot erase American history but we can confront it, teach it, and learn from it. The decision to retain Calhoun College’s name reflects the importance of this vital educational imperative.”

President Salovey supposes that his decision can change the meaning of ‘Calhoun College.’ It cannot.

Salovey’s novel argument promises, incredibly, a win for both sides: he proposes to deliver to the pro-Calhoun camp their desired goal of retaining the name of the college, while engaging frankly and openly with the horrors of chattel slavery.

However, Salovey’s argument hinges on the belief that he has the power, by personal fiat, to void the damage associated with the name “Calhoun College.” It is an interesting argument, which has already attracted national attention and imitation. Its appeal to administrators in similar positions is clear: it does nothing while promising everything. But it is incorrect, as it relies on false assumptions about language and power.

Speaking is a social act. Our social world is constituted by familiar practices, myths, symbols, and stories. Words therefore acquire social meanings. A use of a word has a certain meaning because of facts about the culture, such as entrenched social practices. Salovey’s argument presupposes that his decision can change the meaning of “Calhoun College.” Since it cannot, his argument fails.

To appreciate the point, consider the Wikipedia entry “List of places named after people.” The long list attests to a worldwide social practice of naming places, cities, towns, countries, and continents to honor respected figures. Because of the ubiquity of the practice of naming in order to honor, it is reasonable to assume that when a place is named after a person, its name honors that person’s legacy. Indeed, otherwise the practice is totally illegible. This accounts for the widespread practice of renaming streets, towns, cities, and institutions as political regimes change. Vladimir Lenin’s and Joseph Stalin’s names have been removed from institutions, cities, towns, and streets throughout the former Soviet Union, as have the names of many other former tyrants. Germany has no universities, colleges, cities, or streets named after Adolf Hitler or other Nazi leaders; previously, it did.

The social meaning of Calhoun College is not that it formerly honored the legacy of Calhoun but now does so no longer. The social meaning of Calhoun College is that John C. Calhoun is still regarded as possessing a legacy worthy of honor in the United States. No individual decision can change or alter these facts. Salovey appeals to lofty principles. But his intent is frankly irrelevant to the question of whether Calhoun is an appropriate namesake for a college in the United States in 2016. As Yale’s president, Salovoy has some power. But nothing close to the power that his argument assumes.