Changing Names Doesn't Change History -- It Just Hides It

06/30/2015 01:27 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2016

The Confederate flag is finally being lowered, removed from government spaces. And rightly so. It is an active symbol of racism and hate and widely understood as such. Governors and legislators have called for the flag's removal; retailers like Walmart and Amazon have stopped selling it. In the wake of these events, people have begun to call for the names of prominent defenders of slavery and Jim Crow to be removed from government spaces and public landmarks. Take down the statue of Ben Tillman. Expunge the name of Woodrow Wilson from all places of national honor. Change the name of Minneapolis's Lake Calhoun, which was, who knew, named after John C. Calhoun, South Carolina Senator and one-time Secretary of War. These men were all sympathetic to and complicit in the ideology of white supremacy and the states' rights regime that allowed it to flourish.

This seems like a laudable goal. Who we honor has meaning. And honoring supporters of white supremacy would be wrong. But if we want to expunge the history of white supremacy, we would have to rename just about every monument and memorial we have, along with the names of hundreds of parks, lakes, streets, towns, bridges, highways and states named after founding fathers, presidents, legislators and assorted men and women of prominence who likewise defended, acquiesced in or promoted slavery, segregation, white supremacy and Jim Crow. Our pantheon of heroes and honorees would be limited to small group of abolitionists and anti-racist activists. No one's hands are clean. We would have to erase our entire history, except for that portion specifically dedicated to abolitionism, anti-racism and civil rights.

This is tantamount to a denial of who we are. It is not that easy. Whites hope that these actions will finally liberate us from our burden of guilt and having done this Soviet-style cleanup we can get back on track being the good people we have always wanted to be. The problem is that most of our ideas about who we want to be and what we want to stand for come from these very same people. You cannot talk about democracy and equality without talking about the slaveholders who drafted a Constitution that made those ideals available to a larger number of people than ever before and set the stage for the expansion of rights and equality for women, blacks and other minorities. The paradox of the United States, as any American historian can tell you, is that the ideals of democracy and equality grew alongside of, were intertwined with, slavery and white supremacy. They are inseparable.

It makes sense to remove the Confederate Flag from government space. Though there are people who believe it stands for heritage and a unique Southern culture, that flag is also an active symbol of hate in today's world. Ben Tillman and John Calhoun are not active symbols of hate. Few today even know who they are. No hate group is celebrating the progressive internationalist Woodrow Wilson.

Despite their racism, Calhoun and Wilson were not just racists; they also contributed in (arguably) positive ways to American history. As Secretary of War, Calhoun helped found Fort Snelling, which led to the development of Minneapolis and St. Paul, which is why the lake was named after him. Wilson expanded America's influence in the world, supported women's suffrage, and promoted the modern liberal administrative state, setting the stage for the New Deal.

Changing names is a way of avoiding our history, not grappling with the complex realities of it. There is no escape from our history which is, like all history, at once horrible and inspiring, repugnant and majestic, the best and the worst of what humans are capable of.