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OPINION | NOAM COHEN: Erasing history

Eliminating the names of history’s racists won’t undo the messes they’ve made. by NOAM COHEN THE WASHINGTON POST | April 4, 2021 at 8:50 a.m.

A large textile artwork covers a sign that honors Philip Johnson, one of the early stars of the Museum of Modern Art, the creator of its famed sculpture garden and the crucial arbiter of what appeared in its architecture and design collection.

The work obscuring his name on the wall introduces a new exhibition at MoMA, “Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America,” and it arose out of calls for the museum to banish Johnson’s name for his “widely documented white supremacist views.” It’s only temporary, the museum says.

What could be wrong with obliterating the name of this “dean of American architects,” as he was known? Or, for that matter, the name of Abraham Flexner, the “father of modern medical education”? Or that of August Vollmer, the “father of modern policing”? In recent months, prominent civic institutions have made a show of at least partly cutting ties with past leaders because of their offensive comments and ideas.

The danger of these exercises is not the loss of the names: good riddance. But by focusing on the men as historical figures whose rhetorical sins occurred in the distant past, the process can replace genuine accountability.

Will these institutions acknowledge the actual unjust systems that were created by these past leaders and that exist to one degree or another today? More likely they will continue to follow the path set by these men even as they strip their names from places of honor. Like the MoMA wall hanging, the un-naming papers over the problem.

A vivid example of the phenomenon comes from the Association of American Medical Colleges, which decided to remove Flexner’s name from its top annual prize “in light of racist and sexist writings.” Flexner had held the honor for more than 60 years. His sin was precisely what had made him so celebrated in the medical world: his success in imposing “rigor in medical education” in the words of AAMC president David J. Skorton, who included this praise while announcing Flexner’s erasure.

In a pivotal 1910 report supported by the medical establishment, Flexner proposed requiring that medical schools have expensive labs and science-heavy curriculums. If the schools wouldn’t or couldn’t comply, Flexner wrote, they should be closed.

And indeed, half of all medical schools were shuttered in the immediate aftermath of Flexner’s report—in particular, nearly every medical school that allowed Blacks and women to attend.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last year found that if Flexner had never issued his report and five of the historically Black medical schools had remained open, they would have trained an additional 35,000 doctors, increasing the number of graduating African American physicians by 29 percent in 2019 alone. Likewise, the percentage of women studying medicine declined by half in the 50 years after the Flexner report.

Yet in announcing the name change, the AAMC made clear that it was not addressing the legacy head on. “While the closure of schools that educated women and Black physicians has had an enormously negative impact on the profession, it is Flexner’s racist and sexist views that have prompted the AAMC to take action,” the organization insisted.

In one example the organization cited, Flexner says that aspiring Black doctors should pursue more menial roles: “A well-taught negro sanitarian will be immensely useful; an essentially untrained negro wearing an M.D. degree is dangerous.” Flexner harbored a callous if common indifference toward the Black communities denied access to medical professionals because of the “rigor” he imposed. But the true offense is a medical system that to this day serves Black and brown communities so inadequately when compared to white ones, a system in large part created by Flexner.

The Vollmer example is equally vexing. Last fall, the city council of liberal Berkeley, Calif., proposed that his name be taken off the tallest peak in the Berkeley Hills. The council singled out Vollmer’s support of eugenics, the theory that society should encourage the “best” people to have more children and discourage the “inferiors” from breeding. The eugenics movement of Vollmer’s time was inevitably linked to racist ideas about inferior darker races outnumbering the superior white race.

But Vollmer’s actual legacy, unrelated to eugenics, was complex. In the early 20th century, he became chief of Berkeley’s police department, where he rapidly professionalized the force. He brought in new technologies such as call boxes, radio communication and bicycles, later supplanted by motorcycles. He also integrated the department.

In 1919, Walter Gordon became one of the first Black police officers to patrol a white-majority area in the United States. Vollmer personally convinced Gordon that he could pursue his law degree while walking a beat. When a few white officers objected, he encouraged them to quit. As a veteran, Vollmer expected professionalism among his corps and had little tolerance for such insubordination.

Vollmer’s approach was influential in creating the discipline of criminology, which began with a few courses, then a major at the University of California, and ultimately the nation’s first school devoted to the study of crime fighting. His experience fighting in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War was crucial.

In one speech, Vollmer said: “I’ve studied military tactics and used them to good effect in rounding up crooks. After all, we’re conducting a war, a war against the enemies of society.” Vollmer saw criminals as akin to the Filipino insurgents he fought, and he created an “imperial-military regime” to control them, the University of Chicago’s Julian Go wrote in the American Journal of Sociology. The model was to have new police intelligence divisions work in tandem with state-of-the-art mobile units, from horse to bicycle to motorcycle to car.

“The new mobile units were not only going to prevent crime,” said Go, “they were going to deploy rapidly in response to crimes, just as mobile units in the Philippines responded to insurgent strikes.” When we see police greeting protesters today with tanks and armor fit for “Star Wars”—as well as other examples of military-inspired accoutrements in departments across the country—we are witnessing the Vollmer method taken to a dangerous extreme. And yet Berkeley focused on his support of eugenics, which it held “was evidence that he personally upheld white supremacy and further codified it in his esteemed criminology school” and in the police department, despite being “considered progressive for hiring Black officers.” Eugenics has been similarly deployed as a proxy in other battles. The abortion-rights group Planned Parenthood has had to defend its founder Margaret Sanger from opponents of abortion who highlight her support of eugenics in the same era as Vollmer. Individual chapters have taken steps to remove Sanger’s name from honor, but the national organization, while explicitly denouncing her support for eugenics and decision to speak before the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, remains loyal.

In essence, Planned Parenthood has looked at the world Sanger left us and is grateful, the correct standard by which to hold a leader of the past to account.

As for Johnson, who is celebrated for sleek designs such as the Glass House in Connecticut, the Lipstick Building in Manhattan and the Lincoln Center home of the New York City Ballet, he notoriously supported Nazi Germany.

In the 1930s, when he was organizing MoMA’s early architecture exhibitions, he was simultaneously extolling Hitler, preaching anti-Semitism, and trying to build a fascist political party in the United States to work in partnership with the Nazi government. He later publicly renounced his fascist support, even as reminders of those views would crop up, including in his letters from the 1960s praising Hitler as having been preferable to Roosevelt.

A coalition calling itself the Johnson Study Group issued a public call last fall to get Johnson erased from MoMA, where there are galleries in his name. A letter from the group, signed by 40 architects, designers and educators, noted not only Johnson’s white supremacist and fascist views but also his tenure at the museum, where “he effectively segregated the collection,” never adding a work by a Black architect or designer during the decades he held sway.

In response to the letter, MoMA simply acknowledged that the museum was “aware of new and recent scholarship that explores Johnson’s possible affiliations with fascist and Nazi political figures and ideologies” and was “extensively researching all available information.” When the current exhibition opened last month, the museum took the further step of inviting the name covering “on an interim basis.” The cautious response is revealing. It attempts to forge consensus by keeping the focus firmly in the past and to emphasize the satisfying feeling of declaring that we are living in better times. But what about the ignored present? In MoMA’s case, there is the strange inference to be made that Johnson still has great power over the museum; his name is covered and Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America fills the gallery. When his name returns, will all be forgotten?

A Princeton architect whose work is included in the exhibition told Hyperallergic that he thought MoMA was denying its history. “When it comes to racist urban planning policies in the 20th century and a deeply Eurocentric antiblack archive of American architecture,” V. Mitch McEwen said, “MoMA under white supremacist Philip Johnson did largely create the problem. It innovated white supremacy in architecture.” McEwen noted that the architecture and design department even today has no Black staffers or curators, and the department didn’t acquire its first work by a Black artist until 2016. “The white supremacist legacy of Johnson lives on,” she said. “It will not wither of its own accord.” Rediscovering racist views held by figures from the past could keep whole university and museum departments toiling around the clock for years. But when the historical figures had monumental influence on foundational systems—our buildings, our safety, our public health, in the cases of Johnson, Vollmer and Flexner—erasing their names is hardly sufficient redress.

It doesn’t preclude a deeper examination of the systemic legacies. But if the names suddenly vanish, why ask any more questions?


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