UC Berkeley Law School Dean to rename Boalt Hall due to John Boalt’s legacy of anti-Chinese racism

The UC Berkeley law school sign.

Many campuses have been embroiled in controversies surrounding the naming of its buildings; particularly when those names honour historic figures that have engaged in racism. At Yale University, students successfully lobbied to have Calhoun College, one of the school’s twelve undergraduate residential colleges, renamed based on John C. Calhoun’s legacy as a slaveowner and vocal opposition to the abolition movement of his time. At Harvard University, students successfully sought to end the traditional “House Master” title, and are further demanding that the school stop honouring slave-holding donor families from the university’s past.

The West Coast is no exception. The University of San Francisco recently renamed a building honouring James D. Phelan, who opposed Japanese immigration and who campaigned for the US Senate on the platform, “Keep California White”.

At UC Berkeley, law students have argued for years that the law school’s main classroom building, Boalt Hall, should be renamed.

Boalt Hall was named after John Boalt, a 19th century California lawyer whose unabashedly racist lobbying against Chinese in California was instrumental in the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Boalt was well-known among his contemporaries for his anti-Chinese racism, known for fear-mongering around “The Chinese Question” with his characterization of Chinese immigrants as “unassimilable liars, murderers and misogynists.” In that same treatise, he also wrote about those he called “The Chinaman”:

For, first, they are separated by physical peculiarities of the most marked and distinctive character. The Chinaman differs from us in color, in features, and in size. His contact excites in us, or at least in most of us, an unconquerable repulsion which it seems to me must ever prevent any intimate association or miscegenation of the races.

…His notions of right and wrong are in many respects totally unlike ours. His views in regard to the treatment of women are utterly repugnant to us. His heartlessness and inhumanity toward the infirm, the feeble, and afflicted of his own race shock every sensibility of our nature.

Boalt believed that Chinese people were morally bankrupt, and therefore that integration of White and Chinese people was socially, culturally, and politically impossible. He therefore lobbied vigorously for Chinese people to no longer be allowed to emigrate from China. For more on Boalt’s anti-Chinese views, read this recent, extensive Asian American Law Journal article by Charles P. Reichmann.

Although Boalt is not known for much other than his anti-Chinese rhetoric, UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall was named in 1911 after Boalt’s widow made a substantial donation to the school in exchange for honouring her late husband with a classroom building. When the law school expanded into new, larger facilities in the mid-1950’s, the Boalt Hall name was preserved.

Roughly 30% of the UC Berkeley student body is Asian American, the majority of whom identify as Chinese American. It is unconscionable that the school has prominently honoured a virulently anti-Chinese racist for so much of its history.

However, this morning, UC Berkeley’s newest law school dean, the well-known constitutional law scholar Erwin Chemerinsky who joined the school last year, announced that he would be renaming Boalt Hall —  a victory for students and law scholars who had campaigned for years to strip Boalt Hall of its name.

Chemerinsky wrote in his announcement:

“Ultimately, the question is whether, based on all we know of a person, we should continue to honor the person by using his or her name… I was especially moved by the views of many of our students and alumni of color who expressed discomfort in being part of a school where important aspects of its operation are named for someone who expressed such racism.”

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