More Selective Editing of American History

Sather Tower rises above the University of California at Berkeley. (Noah Berger/Reuters)

Today, the president of the University of California, Janet Napolitano, decided to remove the name of John Boalt from the law school building at the University of California at Berkeley. Boalt undeniably made racist remarks opposing Chinese immigration to California in the late 19th century which added to the forces that results in the passage of the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act.

I have taught at Berkeley Law (as we are supposed to call it, rather than Boalt Hall, as it was known for decades) for 27 years (unbelievably to both conservatives and liberals). I think that Boalt was flat wrong in his views and that the nation erred in its policies on immigration during this time. If I had my way, we would increase legal immigration even now by a factor of 2x and 3x, rather than considering its restriction.

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But I am saddened to see my great university following the herd of other colleges that are selectively editing American history. The answer to the sad moments of the past is not to remove people and events from our collective memory, but to remember them and learn from them. Shall we next re-sculpt Mount Rushmore because Washington and Jefferson owned slaves and Roosevelt liked war, and remove the Washington and Jefferson monuments from the National Mall? Closer to home, shall we end the Jefferson lectures at Berkeley for the same reasons? Shall we edit out the names of chancellors and university leaders who worked on the nuclear bomb because the politically sensitive on campuses today reject that WWII ended with Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Institutions dedicated to the search for truth should not find it in their mission to add and delete from that truth for reasons of current political correctness. Instead, Berkeley should have used Boalt’s name as the starting point for debate and discussion of his attitude toward the Chinese, the late 19th-century treatment of immigrants, and questions of race then and today. It is only by remembering and discussing these events, rather than pretending that they never happened, that we will make sure they don’t happen again.

John Yoo is the Emanuel S. Heller Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

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