As a denizen of Barrows Hall, I was appalled to learn that the building’s namesake, David Barrows, was a white nationalist racist, according to an op-ed in the Daily Cal. Since then I have done some Googling and found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that, while he was an imperfect person, he was not a white nationalist racist. The recently submitted “Proposal to Un-Name Barrows Hall,” which is now open for public comment, is in my view a deeply flawed document, whose claims are not supported by careful research. It is, I suppose, a primarily political document, and as such swerves from academic standards of accuracy. This is unfortunate and perhaps worth some correction. I do so with some hesitation, however, since I am far from expert and do not wish to offend.
The Proposal’s “Summary of Rationale to Unname Barrows Hall” states its thesis succinctly:
The source cited to support this general claim is Kenton Clymer, “Humanitarian Imperialism: David Prescott Barrows and the White Man's Burden in the Philippines,” Pacific Historical Review 45 (1976), 495-517. The Proposal’s claim, however, is in stark contrast to Clymer’s evaluation of Barrows’s words and actions, stemming from his role in the Philippine colonial administration as head of the school system in 1903-9. Clymer’s thesis about Barrows is as follows:
While Clymer grants that Barrows was paternalistic and Eurocentric, he undermines the Proposal’s claim that Barrows was “anti-Philipinx.” Clymer consistently maintains the opposite: “He did, in fact, perceive his primary mission as one of uplift for the Filipinos, not as one of exploitation” (513); “Clearly, Barrows’s humaneness and his theory of history led him to opt for service rather than oppression” (507); “Nowhere is his humanitarianism more evident than in his outspoken opposition to economic exploitation of the masses. Filipinos who refused to work under degrading conditions were to be congratulated, he insisted” (512). Clymer’s article undermines the Proposal’s summary rationale.
In his critical history In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines, Stanley Karnow describes Barrows’s work to reform the Philippine educational system:
Barrows was an idealistic educational reformer, a “humanitarian imperialist” in Clymer’s formulation. It is an unfair distortion to allege that he was anti-Philipinx or promoted a white supremacist agenda.
Similar objections pertain to other statements in this Proposal. Under the section “Barrows Demonstrated Extreme Anti-Blackness,” the claim is: “Barrows argued that Black people are politically incapable, cannot successfully enact self-determination, are vicious, are lacking in free will, and cannot recognize their own rights.” To show Barrows’s “thorough dehumanization of Blacks,” the Proposal cite two quotes from his book of travels in Africa, Berbers and Blacks: Impressions of Morocco, Timbuktu, and the Western Sudan. But these quotes do not show what the Proposal claims. As Barrows makes clear, he is addressing the Blacks of the Sudan, which consist of a variety of tribal peoples: “Wolofs and Mindingos in Senegal, with whom mingle ‘Moors,’ Berbers, and Toucoulerus, Bambars, Songrais, Habés, Mossis, and, further east, in Northern Nigeria, Hausas and Kanuris. Mingling with these are the nomadic Fulas” (234). He is not addressing all Blacks or Black people in general.
Barrows’s comments about the political history of these peoples of the Sudan may be offensive or crude, but they should not be taken out of context to imply a white nationalist agenda of anti-Blackness. He is talking about a particular history of some peoples in a particular place and time. Moreover, his comment about the “wicked” history of the tropical coast refers specifically to the history of the slave trade among these peoples, which he describes as “unspeakably disastrous for the natives themselves” (215-16). To say that these quotes demonstrate a “thorough dehumanization of Blacks” is incorrect. The Proposal takes them out of context and gives them a meaning that is foreign to their intent and politics.
The Proposal’s section “White Supremacist’s View of Global History: Anti-Black and Racist Toward all Indigenous People” quotes Barrows’s view that historical consciousness begins with historical writing and describes it as “the views of a white supremacist advancing the interests of white supremacy.” Barrows may have had what we regard as an outdated and Eurocentric view of historical consciousness – perhaps vaguely Hegelian – but it, and the textbook from which it comes, do not support the inference that he was advancing white supremacy. Barrows states that he wrote his History of the Philippines for the following reasons:
His “humanitarian” purpose is also expressed in his exordium to his young readers about the value of education:
The textbook advances his goal, as Karnow elucidates above, to foster an educated working class. Only by gross distortion can it be described as a racist manual written by a white supremacist.
The Proposal overlooks – either by deliberate omission or incomplete research – Barrows’s most important legacy. In 1941 he conceived and organized the Northern California Committee on Fair Play for Citizens and Aliens of Japanese Ancestry. His goal was to fight the rising racism against Japanese-Americans in the U.S. Charles Wollenberg describes the work of this committee in his article “Dear Earl: The Fair Play Committee, Earl Warren, and Japanese Internment,” California History 89 (2012), 224-60. He describes its formation as follows:
The Fair Play Committee, which included the presidents of Berkeley and Stanford, advocated, by publications and political lobbying, against the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans. As a consequence, the members were accused of treason by a California senate committee. Eventually their cause prevailed, the camps were closed, and the internees allowed to come home. As Wollenberg relates:
Audrie Girdner and Anne Loftis’s comprehensive history, The Great Betrayal: The Evacuation of the Japanese-Americans During World War II, describes the Fair Play Committee’s work alongside that of other prominent antiracist groups, the ACLU and the AFSC:
In this grave period of American history, Barrows was actively antiracist. He created a high-profile committee that fought influentially for the rights of Japanese-Americans in their most vulnerable hour. This seems to be in character, and it is worth commemoration. The Fair Play Committee, established some twenty years before the Free Speech movement, may be regarded as the beginning, and certainly a landmark chapter, in the history of social activism and antiracism at UC Berkeley.
In sum, I contest the Proposal’s contention that “the decision to continue honoring Barrows constitutes tacit approval of a significant and lasting legacy of white supremacy, colonialism, and violent oppression.” This is simply a false representation of the facts. The “Proposal to Un-Name Barrows Hall” is a deeply flawed document, although it supports the important goal of antiracism.
There are many complicated issues here about how to judge, remember, and commemorate the past, which are not easily resolved. But I hope we can agree that we should tell the truth about past (to paraphrase a title by Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob). This should be our starting point for all consequential discussions, a point that has been under some stress lately. Finally, I have one practical suggestion. The university should install a row of displays in the entry hall featuring the history and publications of the Northern California Committee on Fair Play for Citizens and Aliens of Japanese Ancestry (the documents are available in the Bancroft), acknowledging its place in the history of antiracism at UC Berkeley and the key role of its founder, David Barrows.