Close Mobile Menu

The Edge Episode 2: What’s In A Name?

Subscribe to The Edge on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and YouTube.


Subscribe and continue listening to The Edge on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and YouTube.

When Boalt Hall loses its name because of the building’s namesake’s racist views, Laura and Leah wonder if it rights old wrongs or just papers over the past. Should we change the Washington Redskins name? Does removing a statue or a name actually make a difference? Arianne Eason, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, who studies the effect of mascots on minority groups joins the discussion. Then Boalt alum Michael Halloran explains his reasons for opposing the name change and two recent Boalt grads explain why they were for it.

Show Notes

This episode was produced by Coby McDonald. This episode was written and hosted by Laura Smith and Leah Worthington. 

Special thanks to Pat Joseph, Michael Halloran, Tar Rakhra, Ryan Sun, Arianne Eason and California magazine intern, Steven Rascon. Art by Michiko Toki, and original music by Mogli Maureal.

The Transcript

LEAH WORTHINGTON: Hey Laura, does the name John Henry Boalt mean anything to you?

LAURA SMITH: No … ? Was he like a serial killer or something? 

LEAH: Really? A serial killer? 

LAURA: Yeah, c’mon, you’re into true crime! You know—how they always have three names. Like John Wayne Gacy? Or maybe he’s an assassin? Like John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald … . 

LEAH: Okay, I’ll give you a hint. Focus on the last name: Boalt. 

LAURA: [long pause] Ohhhhhhkay. Does he have anything to do with Boalt Hall and the law school here at Berkeley? 

LEAH: He sure does! After John Boalt died in 1901, his widow, Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt, donated a bunch of money in his memory and it was used to fund the construction of a building at UC Berkeley’s very prestigious law school. 

LAURA: Okay … but Leah that doesn’t address whether or not he was an assassin … 

LEAH: [sigh] He was not a murderer, Laura. 

LAURA: Well apologies to the memory of John Wilkes Boalt, I guess. 

LEAH: Oh my god. John HENRY Boalt. 

LAURA: Oh right. That’s the one. 


LEAH: I should say though, even though he was not a murderer, he was kind of … a schmuck. 

LAURA: I’m not surprised. It’s the whole three-name thing. 

LEAH: Um, how many names do you have, again?

LAURA: Three, but … . Anyway, why do we care about this dead Boalt hall guy? 

LEAH: Well, what if I told you that John Henry Boalt was involved in a recent scandal that ended with his name being literally pried off the face of his namesake building. 

LAURA: Did he … 

LEAH: No. 

LAURA: … murder …




LAURA: This is The Edge, a podcast brought to you by California magazine and the Cal Alumni Association.

LEAH: Where we chase down UC Berkeley experts to talk about ideas—edgy ideas—that are changing society.

LAURA: I’m your host Laura Smith.

LEAH: And I’m your co-host Leah Worthington. 

LEAH: So it all started with this dude named Charles Reichmann, who’s an attorney and lecturer at Berkeley Law. Basically, in 2017, he made a trip to the Bancroft Library on campus and while he was researching he came across this speech by John Henry Boalt, and he was like, “Hey, the building I work in is named after that guy!” The speech he found was called the “Chinese Question.” 

LAURA: Ohhh no. 

LEAH: Ohhh yes. It was a racist screed. I pulled some excerpts from his writing to give you a sense of what we’re talking about here—it’s pretty awful, so we should warn listeners before we go on that if you don’t want to hear this, you should skip ahead about 30 seconds. Okay, so, in 1877, Boalt gave this address to the Berkeley Club, which is basically like a social club for prominent Berkeley citizens and other university people. And at some point he said, quote: “Two non-assimilating races never yet lived together harmoniously on the same soil, unless one of these races was in a state of servitude to the other.”

LAURA: So basically he’s saying, different races can’t get along unless one of them is enslaved? That’s pretty sick. 

LEAH: Yeah, yeah. He also argued that all people who come to this country should assimilate, but that they might not be able to because of, and I quote: “physical peculiarities,” and quote, “intellectual differences and differences of temperament,” end quote. So this was basically the basis for his argument that we shouldn’t allow Chinese people to come to this country. 

LAURA: Wow, that’s awful. 

LEAH: Yeah, and it gets worse. He goes on to speculate that when you have two races that are so different, it might be preferable for one to just exterminate the other. 

LAURA: [reacts] That sounds a lot like this guy … Hitler? 

LEAH: Yeah, I mean he was really bad. He was also a really big proponent, unsurprisingly, of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—which, for those of you who don’t know, was the law that blocked many Chinese immigrants from coming to this country simply because they were Chinese. It was also the first law to target and exclude an entire ethnic group.

LAURA: And THIS is the name that’s been on the Berkeley Law building for … ?

LEAH: More than a hundred years.

LAURA: So what happened? I’m guessing Reichmann told someone about this speech. 

LEAH: Yeah so he spent some months researching Boalt’s racist views and he wrote an op-ed and a law review article basically describing his findings and making the case to rename Boalt Hall. Then the law school commissioned a study of the issue, and they shared their report was shared with the entire school community to get feedback. And, according to Erwin Chemerinsky, who’s the dean of the law school, they got around 800 comments, two-thirds of which were in favor of removing the name. The Dean said that: “There is no evidence that John Boalt himself … would remotely have supported the inclusive law school and the UC Berkeley campus we are so proud of today.” And the Dean also said that Boalt’s principal legacy was, quote, “one of racism and bigotry,” which it was. So the school’s Building Name Review Committee voted, and they recommended that the name should be removed, and Chancellor Christ and Janet Napolitano, the president of the UC system, approved the decision. 

LAURA: And how did people react? 

LEAH: It was mixed … A lot of people were strongly for removing the name. On a public forum hosted by the university, these people wrote some things like, quote: “As a Master of Public Policy student of Chinese ethnicity, it feels hurtful and humiliating to know that a building at an institution that I pay tuition to—a building that houses a school that is supposed to uphold the values of fairness and justice—is named after a man who opposed my very presence at this campus and in this country,” end quote.

LAURA: Wow, well said. So, were there any compelling arguments for keeping the name?

LEAH: I don’t know. I mean, I guess it kinda depends on your perspective, but one person said this—they basically argued: What if, after Law School Dean Chemerinsky dies, his widow decides to honor his name with a similar donation? And then, what if, in some 142 years, the author was very specific, the Dean is implicated for an offensive opinion that he once held? The author wrote, quote: “If the Chemerinsky name is therefore besmirched in the year 2161, should all memory of his wife then be erased from history?” 

LAURA: Umm … has that person ever heard of round numbers? 142 years? And 2161? 

LEAH: Yeah, I mean, they also used the word besmirched so … 

LAURA: Okay so, I crunched the numbers, and the math checks out … As for the logic of that argument …

LEAH: Yeah, here’s the thing. Whether or not you agree with their point, the analogy does, maybe, raise some interesting questions, like: Does editing our representation of history actually right old wrongs—or does it just cover it up? 

LAURA: Yeah, and, speaking to what’s happening all over the country right now: Does removing a statue or a plaque actually make a difference? 

LEAH: To quote Juliet from Romeo and Juliet, “what’s in a name?”

LAURA: “That which we call a racist by any other name would smell as … racist?”

LEAH: Or … something like that.

LAURA: Anywayyy. Today’s episode is all about the power of names. I’ll talk with two recent law school grads who advocated for removing Boalt’s name.

LEAH: And I’ll get the dissenting view from an alum and die-hard Boaltie. That’s what some Berkeley Law alums call themselves. 

LAURA: And then we’ll both talk to a professor about the psychological effects of racist mascots and symbols. So Leah, tell me about this “die-hard Boaltie.” 

LEAH: So, this all started when we ran a quick blurb in the spring issue of the magazine about the denaming of the hall, and we got a letter from a Boalt grad who was upset because he felt that we didn’t do a good job representing the opinions of all the people like himself who wanted to keep the name. And we thought, “What the heck—let’s invite him on the show and hear what he has to say.”

MIKE HALLORAN: Well, I'm Michael J. Halloran. I was Berkeley engineering, mechanical engineering from '58 to '62. I was in law school from '62 to '65.

MIKE: We want to keep the name Boalt because it is the traditional name used by the school. It's recognized internationally. It's used culturally in movies and books and so forth. Boalt Hall has a meaning, a secondary meaning. Okay, I mean, in fact, there's a thing called the Boalt Hall fund that we all contribute to. 

LAURA: Okay, but he knows John Henry Boalt is super racist, right?

LEAH: Yeah he does. But one of the main arguments he and other people who agree with him make is that it was actually John Henry Boalt’s wife, Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt, who donated the money for the building. 

MIKE: When I was in law school, which is a long time ago in 1962 to '65, the women in our class actually thought that the law school was named after Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt. And the reason they thought that is probably because a big, big picture of Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt is in our library. And they thought, and they were proud of that fact. They were the only major law school in the United States that was named after a woman. Pretty cool, you know? 

LAURA: Okay, but it’s not called the Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt building. 

LEAH: Right. But that was actually the compromise Mike suggested. He wanted to rename the building to honor Elizabeth instead. So basically call it “Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt Hall.” But the dean didn’t go for it.

MIKE: Our position would be that once you affirmatively call it the Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt Hall, it's not his name that’s being honored. And I think the students over time would recognize that, that it's not his name, it's a woman's name. And it's an important woman in history. And they would come to realize that. And so... 
LEAH: Even if her donation was made on behalf of her husband?

MIKE: Well she didn’t make it on behalf of— 

LEAH: In his memory?

MIKE: Maybe she made it in memory of, okay? Or in honor of—we don't know what she said—in memory, in honor. What I'm going to say is a lot of us said that the contribution was made by Elizabeth, and that the name should be preserved as Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt Hall, and that it wasn't fair to use guilt by association, that's say, that a wife should somehow have to bear the sins of her husband. And it didn't seem appropriate. 

LEAH: But clearly she is a proponent of her husband's and is honoring his memory in this donation. So why does it make sense to have her name up there? It seems she is connected to him in a very important way.

MIKE: Well, sure. She was married to him. I think she was just in the business of trying to do good things, for the university and so forth, and I think it's tragic that she will never be remembered.

MIKE: And I do agree, viewed by modern-day terms, that if you read the statements of John Boalt, they are racist. I mean, you know, they are. Now you know, he didn't start a civil war. This is not, you know, Robert E. Lee, or something like that. But those were his political views. And those views were shared by most Californians who voted for the referendum. 

LEAH: Yeah, he didn't start a war, but he did very much legitimize racism against an entire ethnic group.

MIKE: Okay, he did, you know, and, you know, a lot of us, while we can argue that denaming the world and you know, if you want to get serious maybe we'll start talking about Lord Berkeley and his slaves in Maryland. I mean, we can carry this out to its logical extreme if you want. But I'm not gonna do that.

LAURA: Okay, I just want to pause for a minute because his argument is one I’ve heard a lot of people use. Like, yes, many powerful people in history did really terrible things. I mean, for example, I went to the University of Virginia, and it was founded by a slave owner—aka our third president, aka Thomas Jefferson! But I’m just not convinced by this “slippery slope” argument—you know, that revising our historical monuments is an impossible task because everyone was a little bit racist, so where do you draw the line? Personally, I think when it comes to people like John Henry Boalt, the line is pretty clear. And there were, and are, plenty of deserving people who didn’t write racist manifestos. Why can’t we name it after one of them??

LEAH: Yes. That is exactly what I wanted to know.

LEAH: There are so many important people who have gone in and out of the university who have much less problematic legacies. Why is it still, why is it still worth it to fight for that name?

MIKE: We think the Boalt name has achieved independent significance. And we think it's tragic to just delete it on the basis of decisions by committees that never included alumni.

LEAH: Do you think that that's more important than honoring the sensitivity of students like current Asian American students who feel that having his name on their place of education is an affront to their identity?

MIKE: Well, in the first place, our position would be that once you affirmatively call it the Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt Hall, it's not his name that’s being honored.

MIKE: I admit it's part emotional, part tradition, part history, part identity. I mean, they identified themselves with Boalt, you know, and they don't like the idea that somebody rears up and takes away their identity from them, because that's what they always were. 

LEAH: I hear you. I mean I think that the argument is that Chinese American identity has been more attacked and threatened and vulnerable and marginalized than the average identity of someone who graduated from Boalt Law school. And given that disparity ...

LEAH: Maybe that is the identity that we should be prioritizing right now.

LAURA: I think that’s a good point. I think the issue here is that it can be hard, even scary, to accept change, especially when it forces people to rethink the way they define themselves and their personal history. Honestly, when I hear him saying that he thinks it’s tragic that Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt’s legacy will be erased, I can’t help but wonder if he feels a little erased. That this is really about his own personal legacy and a sense of community. 

LEAH: Yeah and from the perspective of someone like Mike and some of these other self-described Boalties, it maybe isn’t totally clear how to move forward. Like, they might have a hard time getting used to calling their alma mater by a different name than what they knew it as while they were there—or maybe they just don’t even see a need for it.

LAURA: True, but the fact that it’s an adjustment seems beside the point. In fact, I think this is exactly what a power shift looks like—people with more privilege coming together to make real change and personal sacrifices that prioritize the needs and experiences of marginalized people. It’s something we’re seeing all across the country. And it is uncomfortable for a lot of people, but the point is that a lot of other people were much more uncomfortable, and even unsafe, for a lot longer.

LEAH: You know, it’s really interesting to be recording this episode given everything that’s happening in the world right now. As we sit here recording this, statues around the country are being literally torn down by protestors. 

LEAH: They’ve removed at least two statues of Junipero Serra, who was a Spanish missionary who beat and enslaved Native Americans throughout California, as well as other slave owners like Francis Scott Key, whose statue was torn down in San Francisco. And, after years of debate, the city of San Francisco finally decided to remove the statue of Christopher Columbus—but only after protestors threatened to tear it down and throw it into the Bay. Which I personally think is pretty hilarious.

LAURA: Yeah, I mean talk about the power of names! Right now we’re about three weeks out from the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. And while Columbus and Serra represent thousands of years of colonialists and racists, we’re seeing names like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor stand in for all the Black people who have been alienated, enslaved, and killed. And a kind of national reckoning is underway.

LEAH: Yeah, exactly. And speaking of prioritizing that marginalized perspective … I think now would be a great time to hear from those Boalt graduates who argued for removing the name.

RYAN SUN: Hi, I'm Ryan Sun. I'm a recent graduate of Berkeley law class of 2020. I am a second generation Chinese American. And my parents immigrated to the United States from China in the early 80s. 

TAR RAKHRA: Hi, I'm Tar Rakhra. I'm also a recent graduate from the class of 2020 from Berkeley law.

LAURA: So Ryan and Tar both strongly advocated for removing Boalt’s name from the hall.

RYAN: A lot of the rhetoric and language that John Boalt was using, I mean, it was explicitly about things like the Chinese Exclusion Act, but it was about how people who are from Asia, from China specifically, would never be able to sort of become part of this country. And knowing that that wrongness knowing that that racism was part of the law school, part of the building that I would sort of step into every day in my law school career was just something that I do not want for the next three years of my life. 

TAR: John Boalt wouldn't want individuals like Ryan and me and other minorities to come to this law school, receive an education and acquire the power and the tools that the law gives us in terms of defending our rights and making sure that we are fighting for an equal future. It's important for us to address the fact that we have probably, you know, put white supremacy in our institutions, we have put white supremacy in our law, we put the white supremacy in our country. Now's the time to really reflect back on what happened and ask ourselves, "Is this something that we want for our future?" Or do we want to make a statement for our future, for our future students, whether it's law or any type of institution, that you're going to an institution where the individual who it's named after doesn't believe you're there? I think for Ryan and I, the answer has always been that you belong here. And you definitely have earned your right to be here. And it doesn't matter what was said in the past. What matters is that you're part of our future. 

LAURA: Yeah, I think that we're sort of going through like a full-scale reevaluation of like, okay, who do we want to valorize? Who do we want to memorialize. And what do you say to the people who say, "Oh, this is actually a building that was donated by his wife, you know, and removing the name is actually offensive to her?" 

TAR: I think that what I try to comprehend is for Elizabeth Boalt, it's not like she didn't know who her husband was. Her husband made this public statement at that point. We also know that her husband had some like affinity towards the Confederacy and what the Confederacy stood for. We know that her husband was anti-Black people, anti-Native American, anti-Asian American, pretty much anyone who wasn't white was what her husband was against. I think the very fact that her donation was made in his honor is almost like a complicit acceptance of what her husband believed in.

LEAH: You know, it makes me wonder if it’s at all dangerous just to remove the name without acknowledging that for many years it was called Boalt. Like would it just be kind of papering over this very tangible example of racism being built into the very structures that, you know, form our society?

LAURA: That’s a great point. Tar and Ryan actually had some really interesting things to say about the law school—and indeed all institutions—needing to acknowledge their racist roots. 

RYAN: There's this question of, what do we do with these kind of legacies of history, of problematic, of racist individuals? And when we take down those memorials to them, is it just okay that we've done this? Is it just okay that the statue’s gone, or the name is gone, and we can just leave it at that? My stance has always been that you can't just do that. And the reason you can't just do that is because doing that and thinking your work is done in terms of dismantling these sort of systems and structures of oppression kind of leads to, let's say, bad outcomes. And especially when we're talking about these kinds of racist and oppressive ideologies, those kinds of things come back if you do not both hold yourself accountable, but also keep trying to remember, keep trying to trying to reflect on how those things are part of maybe not even just your identity, but the identities of the institutions you’re at, like Berkeley Law, or the identities of the nation you live in, like the United States.  

LAURA: I mean, another argument that we got a lot of responses about were that it's whitewashing history to remove his name. I wonder, do you guys have any thoughts about how, I don't know, maybe like a different way to acknowledge the fact that Boalt Hall has been Boalt Hall for a really long time, and that is going to change? 

RYAN: I personally would like it if it wasn't just something like, "This building used to be named Boalt Hall after John Boalt. And John Boalt was a racist." I mean, it I think that's true. But I don't think it gets to the crux, which is that and the system in place that allowed people like John Boalt, to have the power and the viewpoint he did, to, you know, affirm things like the Chinese Exclusion Act was the context behind the person. And I’d like if the memorial said something about things like the Chinese Exclusion Act, said things about racism against, his racism against racial minorities as well, more than just kind of reflecting on just him as the singular person.

LEAH: So, in other words, making it sound like there was just this one racist guy, and wasn’t he awful, sort of overlooks the bigger problem—that there was a culture of racism and that it was embedded and literally built into our institutions. Like, John Henry Boalt as a person doesn’t matter. No offense. Actually, yes, he can have some offense.

LAURA: Right. Obsessing over this one guy kind of misses the point.

LEAH: So then who do they think the building should be named after? Like I talked about with Mike, there’ve gotta be things that we believe and do now that one day are going to seem really outdated and even problematic. So does it even make sense to name this building after someone else?

LAURA: Do you like the idea of leaving it unnamed? 

TAR: I'm solely for the unnamed law school, because to me, it's such a beautiful thing like we I know, I talked to individuals from abroad, and they say Americans have this weird fascination: we love to name things, like we'd love to name benches and we'd love to name inanimate objects. But to me, the law school itself, you have to think about the law in general, like the laws a living, breathing thing. It changes as society changes. Like, like my first year law school, we learned that the laws—and societal institution—that's ultimately a reflection of societal values. 


By leaving the law school unnamed, it tells the future generations of law students that crosses through it, that you have the power to define what this law school means to you. And it's up to you to leave your lasting impact on this institution. And I think that's a beautiful metaphor of what a law school truly is.

LEAH: Hmm. That’s kind of a beautiful idea—that, you know, in leaving it unnamed, you allow future generations to define it for themselves. 

LAURA: Yeah totally. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens. And you know, Leah, this conversation has implications for a lot of other things …

LEAH: I’m listening. 

LAURA: Well, I’m from Washington D.C., and our football team has a very controversial name. And I don’t feel comfortable saying the name, but I’ll say it once, just so everyone knows what we’re talking about. They’re called the Redskins, which is a slur against Native Americans. 

LEAH: Oooh yeah. That’s a bad one. And it’s not the only one, right? 

LAURA: Yeah, I mean, you’ve got the Kansas City Chiefs, the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians, not to mention the Golden State Warriors right in our own backyard. 

LEAH: Oh, really?

LAURA: Oh yeah. The Warriors were originally founded in Philadelphia in the mid-40s with a logo of a cartoon of a Native American man dribbling a basketball and wearing a single yellow feather.

LEAH: Whoa. So … now it’s just a silhouette of the Bay Bridge—did that happen when they moved to California?

LAURA: Not quite. When they first moved to San Francisco, the logo was changed to a blue and white Native American headdress. And it wasn’t until 1969 that they got rid of the Native American imagery altogether.

LEAH: And I imagine the name “The Warriors” is a relic of that history, right?

LAURA: Yep. And just like with buildings, monuments, and schools, people get really attached to their sports teams’ names—sometimes at the expense of others, like in this case Native Americans. And it’s not just the names and mascots that are problematic—it’s also the associated behaviors and fan traditions. Like, for instance, have you heard of the Tomahawk Chop?

LEAH: No, but that really doesn’t sound good. 

LAURA: Yeah, it’s not. It’s supposed to be a sort of battle cry that fans of the Braves and Chiefs and other teams do during games to cheer on their players. A Slate article describes it as, quote, “a rhythmic extension and contraction of the forearm, with the palm open, to mimic the action of chopping.” So basically imagine a bunch of (mostly white) fans yelling this sort of wordless war chant while waving foam tomahawks and wearing feathers.

LEAH: Oh, god.

LAURA: Yeah, so, as you might imagine, the Washington team has gotten a lot of pressure over the years to change their name, but the owner, Steve Snyder, has sworn that he will never change it, insisting that it’s not offensive. 

LEAH: And I assume he feels comfortable making that call because he, himself, is Native American? 

LAURA: He is most definitely not Native American. 

LEAH: I figured. 

LAURA: Yeah, and a lot of proponents of keeping the team name point to a 2016, Washington Post study about this exact issue. Apparently they surveyed 500 self-identified Native Americans, and, according to their results, nine out of ten were not offended by the mascot. 

LEAH: That’s … surprising. 

LAURA: Well, and as it turns out, it’s not quite that simple. A professor at Berkeley conducted her own study and arrived at a very different conclusion …

ARIANNE EASON: Hi, I'm Dr. Arianne Eason. I am an assistant professor of psychology in both the social and the developmental areas. And generally I study issues of prejudice and bias and how that develops across the lifespan, so in infants, children, and adults.

ARIANNE: So, one of my collaborators and I do work thinking about the invisibility of Native Americans in our society. And in that line of work, one thing that we had noticed was, you know, when you look out in society, you see that there are massive protests every year, Native people are speaking up and saying that they are offended. And so things really, it just doesn't really make sense how you can get a poll that contrasts so much with what you see right in front of your eyes.

ARIANNE: In September, I want to say, another poll was released also reported in the Washington Post saying that still Native people weren't offended by the team name. And so we're kind of looking at this and we're just baffled, right? 

LAURA: Do you know what their methodology was?

ARIANNE: I think there are some key issues that that document really raised. So one of them is the fact that it is a telephone survey. And there has been some evidence to suggest that people are more likely to give positive answers and not express kind of negative things like opposition on telephone surveys, and that's especially true for communities of people who are really, well, community oriented. You know, expressing those levels of opposition to strangers is even more unlikely.

ARIANNE: And, then also, they note that the survey was done in the context of other questions, but it's really unclear what those other questions were. And we all know like, as a social psychologist, context matters. And that can really shape the way that people think about issues and what they're likely to respond.

LAURA: Also, just a quick reminder that the Washington Post only spoke to around 500 people. Which, of the 5 million Native people in the US, that isn’t exactly a huge sample size.

ARIANNE: And so we decided to really do a scientific study to really unpack this phenomena. Like, what are native people's attitudes on the issue? Can we capture that in a scientifically rigorous way? And can we also think about the ways in which identity matters for shaping opposition?

ARIANNE: So we had just over 1,000 native people participate in the study. And then, it was an online survey. And what people did was we adapted some of the questions from the 2016 Washington Post survey about opposition to the team name.

LAURA: They asked questions like “Do you think the term “Redskins” is respectful to Native Americans?” 

ARIANNE: And then we also added some items about the use of Native mascots more generally. So do you think that's okay, do you think it's respectful to Native people? And then we also added some items that, you know, I think are important for us to remember that co-occur with the use of Native mascots. And then after that people answered questions about their identity. So how much they engaged in tribal cultures, like attending powwows or visiting elders eating Native foods, things like that. 

LAURA: And finally, they measured something that Dr. Eason calls “identity centrality.”

ARIANNE: And really what that is, is how important is being Native American to one's sense of self. And what we find is much higher levels of opposition than what was previously reported. So overall, what we found was that about half the people in our sample kind of, regardless of identity, really were opposed to the use of Native mascots and to the Washington team name. And then from there, when you take identity into account, we saw even greater levels of opposition. So, people who reported being frequently engaged in their tribal communities, about 67% reported being offended. And we saw similar rates of opposition when you took into consideration kind of that identity centrality. So feeling like being Native is important to one's sense of self, that went up to about 57%. Which really suggests that identity matters in shaping kind of people's experiences with forms of prejudice and discrimination.

LEAH: Okay, so it seems pretty clear that, to state the obvious, many Native Americans are in fact offended by the use of racial slurs and cultural stereotypes in sports. So … can’t we just get rid of them?

LAURA: You’d think so. But, just like Steve Snyder, the Washington team owner who insists it’s not offensive, fans and people in leadership roles have come up with all sorts of different reasons to justify keeping the traditions. As Chiefs’ president Mark Donovan said, and I’m quoting, “The Arrowhead Chop is part of the game-day experience that is really important to our fans.”

LEAH: Okay so, in other words, he’s sort of claiming that this tradition belongs to his team and to his fans, rather than the Indigenous cultures it originally came from—cultures that, not coincidentally, were colonized and oppressed by white people for hundreds of years?

LAURA: Exactly. And part of the problem is that team owners and fans and players often think that they’re actually celebrating these Native cultures.

ARIANNE: Many times, people try to boil down this question to sense of attitudes, right. Like, we feel like we're honoring them, and that's really what our intent is. But the reality is, I think, we need to move beyond these questions of intent and really think about the outcomes. And when you look at the outcome, they're really horrific. So there's kind of no situation in which the use of Native mascots, at least as they are now is positive. So, you know, the data really suggest that, for Native people, exposure to Native mascots, reduces self-esteem, it reduces a sense of community worth. So kind of that belief that my community is efficacious and can do things. And it reduces students’ future aspirations. So what they think is possible for their future. So that alone should tell us that Native mascots are problematic. But then, even if you look even further into the data, it actually increases the extent to which people stereotype Native Americans, and the extent to which people stereotype other racialized minorities like Black, Latino, and Asian Americans. So, really, Native mascots, if you look at the outcomes, are really problematic. And that really should be enough to get us to take a step back and say, maybe we shouldn't be using these at all. Like, why are we holding on to something? Even if we intend it to have positive consequences, it's really not having those consequences. 

LEAH: So if the, if the name is problematic, and we want to remove the name and replace it with something else, do you think there's any kind of responsibility to recognize what it was before? Or do we just move on? 

ARIANNE: I think we shouldn't brush our history under the table, right? I think we shouldn't just act like it never existed. But that doesn't mean that we are absolved from the responsibility of rectifying the future.

LEAH: So the first step seems pretty obvious: change the name. But then the question is, how do we actually “rectify the future?” as Dr. Eason said, without just pretending that all the bad stuff never happened? Like, so all of a sudden we’ve got all these empty pedestals, right? Where racist statues used to stand … what should we put there instead?

LAURA: Yeah, that’s the tricky position we’re finding ourselves in now. In San Francisco, officials are accepting nominations for new statues to replace the one of Christopher Columbus. According to the SF Chronicle, they’re considering a different historic Italian American who, quote, “isn’t quite as controversial as Christopher Columbus”—like St. Francis of Assisi or … Nancy Pelosi.

LEAH: Interesting. It’s not like she’s … uncontentious exactly. Seems to me like choosing any political figure is just asking for controversy. 

LAURA: Yeah. That’s definitely the case. 

LEAH: Anyway, going back to Columbus, the city is nodding to his heritage, sure, but then are they doing anything in specific to recognize that there used to be a statue of one of the most brutal colonizers in history? 

LAURA: Yeah, not so far. And, interestingly, they don’t have any plans to remove his name from Columbus Avenue, either. So the City Supervisor Aaron Peskin said, quote: “There is a real difference between a physical symbol and a place name. If we go down that road, we’d be renaming half of the streets in the city.”

LEAH: I don’t know. I feel like that difference is actually a little slippery. Like are street signs and maps and addresses with Columbus’s name on them really that much less offensive than a statue?

ARIANNE: I think that's a really interesting and important question, like the power of representation and the power of names. Like it gets us towards the question of how do we want to represent history, and what is the appropriate way to represent history, and whose stories get uplifted in those contexts? So, you know, city of Berkeley is one of the first cities, if not the first city, to officially celebrate Indigenous Peoples' Day in lieu of Columbus Day, but Columbus Day is still a federally recognized holiday. And even though people are starting to celebrate it less, it still exists, right? And so the question is, why as a nation do we uplift this person? It's built on the negative stereotyping of Native Americans, right? When you celebrate this holiday that is about bringing civilization to the new world, the kind of tacit understanding or implication there is that the people who were here first weren't civilized.

LEAH: Dr. Eason explained that a lot of these things boil down to identity and some … shall we say, sensitivity, around how we define ourselves as “Americans.”

ARIANNE: It also turns out that these narratives like holidays, monuments, names on buildings are really closely connected to people's sense of self and identity. So, as Americans, people, we often like to feel like our country is great, it is morally exceptional compared to some other nations, and, as a consequence, we're more likely to kind of brush off the negative aspects of our history instead of owning them.  

ARIANNE: There was this poll with parents with children in public schools, and it found that only 14% of those parents thought it was appropriate to teach their children about the atrocities that Columbus committed. But, you know, one way to think about this work is you might say, "Well, maybe they just don't want to teach the kids about atrocity." Like, maybe that's really the problem. But in that exact same survey, 96% of parents said that we should teach about the Holocaust, right? So in some ways, this totally isn't about, you know, wanting to shield kids from atrocity and, you know, brutality. But really, it's about protecting that sense of self and American identity, right?  

LEAH: I think the psychology of this is also so interesting the way that this is tied to identity and that was a big part when they were talking about removing Boalt from Boalt Hall. A lot of the people who opposed were just Berkeley Law graduates who really identified as a Boaltie, and they were like, "Who am I if you take away the name of my school? Have I lost my identity?" And it's, it's such a meaningless thing in a way, the name of your school. But the fact that that was even part of the argument where it was like, but this is who we are. 

ARIANNE: I mean, identity is a powerful force. But I think what's really important to remember is that we reshape our identities all the time. And as a nation, we also reshape our narrative. So when I was young, I remember that the narrative arc of our nation was a melting pot. And then, at some point, it moved to like, a salad. I don't know if anybody remembers that? But that is an example of a narrative change. Like we're reshaping; we're not just saying that people are assimilating there, which is really that melting pot metaphor. What we're saying is that our nation is made up of distinct units that come together and make something better. The United States was founded as a nation, supposedly, on this idea of we are highly moral and the sense of American exceptionalism, right? Now, if you really took a critical look at history, we know that that's not true. But if a subtle reframing of "We are a nation that's continually striving towards morality and being better," it means that you can, on the one side, say, "Yeah, we haven't been perfect, but that we're continuing to build towards a more perfect union," right? And so that's a shift that's possible, and we have it in our power to make it. 


LEAH: To bring this full circle, all the way back to where we started, it seems there’s still some work to be done to figure out how to acknowledge the history of Boalt Hall or what shall henceforth be called “The Law Building.” Berkeley’s Building Name Review Committee, that’s a mouthful, did recommend, quote, “a visible public record … (an) exhibit, installation, plaque, sign or public art form that will enable viewers to acknowledge this history.” But so far I haven’t been able to find any concrete plans about what they’re going to put up. 

LAURA: Well, I guess we’ll have to wait and see what they come up with. 

LEAH: And in the meantime I shall continue my peaceful boycott of both law school and watching football.

LAURA: How commendable! 

LEAH: Thank you, Laura.

LAURA: You’re welcome. So is that it for now?

LEAH: I guess so! Oh, except we forgot our neighborhood kid. 

LAURA: Oh right! We can’t leave out the future generation! Okay here’s Marco with the last word on sports team names. 

MARCO JOSEPH: It's the people who made that name who are racist. But it's also that it's there and the culture behind it like the background behind the name. It's like, you can't look past that, really. So that's why that's wrong.

LAURA: This The Edge, brought to you by California magazine and the Cal Alumni Association. I’m Laura Smith.

LEAH: And I’m Leah Worthington.

Laura: This episode was produced by Coby McDonald, with support from Pat Joseph. Special thanks to Mike Halloran, Tar Rakhra, Ryan Sun, Arianne Eason, and California magazine intern Steven Rascon. Original music by Mogli Maureal.

LEAH: And hey, Steve Snyder, change your team’s name.

LAURA: Niiiice.

Share this article